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Monday, August 26, 1996

"Pawn Shop Cop" Helps Out Local Law Enforcement

Staff Writer

Around the Abilene police station, Detective Coy Cole is called the "Pawn Shop Cop." Like the beat cop of old, he pounds the same pavement daily.

Modest and humble, Cole would rather not receive public attention for his work, says Lt. Mark Moore, who heads the criminal investigations division.

"The two things that make it continuously successful are Coy's high work ethic and diligence and also the continuous help of our senior citizen volunteers who do the data input to support the program," Moore said.

More than $80,000 in stolen merchandise was recovered last year alone. Cole has developed a relationship of trust and honesty born out of 10 years of visiting and dealing with pawn shop owners, managers and employees.

"We've made (the pawn shop program) work because we're not out here tooting our horns," he said. WORKING HIS BEAT

Three times a week - Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays - he spends the morning visiting the city's 12 shops to pick up their pawn tickets. Cole took a Reporter-News reporter with him Friday on a pawn shop run.

"There's a lot of P.R. to it," says Cole as he strode into B&B Pawn & Trading on Butternut. "Most of the pawn shop people are good people.

"The general theme of their complaint is that they don't want to be perceived as people that take stolen stuff."

When Cole enters a shop, he picks up the pawn tickets and says "Hi." Chatting with employees and owners, there's a real sense of mutual friendship.

"(Coy) can be pretty ornery, but he's all right," says Donna Combs, who works at South First Pawn.

Most cities - particularly the larger ones - have a pawn detail like Abilene's, but they generally don't work it very actively, Cole said.

"I don't believe they get out and aggressively pursue it," he said. "You figure with the volume you're going to get some stolen stuff. We work to keep them from being a dumping ground."

In 1986, Cole convinced his bosses the Abilene department should devote the time and manpower to track the property flowing into pawn shops.

"When I was working detective work, I noticed it was like pulling teeth out of cheeks to get stuff out" of a pawn shop, he said.

Cole told them the department "was missing a lot of stuff at the pawn shops." To change that, he spent the last 10 years developing a rapport with the pawn shops.

"We've got it to where it works real good," said Cole, a 19-year department veteran. "They realize that this is one of the pitfalls of the business. When you come in every day and they see your face, people grow on each other. I just try to treat (the pawn shops) right. They respect that.

"I never cross the line. I don't talk about another pawn shop's business. That's where you build up the honesty."

Cole notes that stolen merchandise comprises a very small portion - less than one percent - of the pawn business.


Pawn shops vary from the chain stores, such as EZ Pawn and Cash America, to the little holes-in-the-wall. Some specialize in guns; others specialize in electronic equipment; but all carry a variety of merchandise and are regulated by the Consumer Credit Commission.

"Each store has different employees, different personalities," he said. "They're regulated by the city, state and the feds. What other business is regulated like they are? I'm surprised that they don't buck the system more. They've had a black eye for years. It's unfortunate."

Prior to employment, employees go through background checks and must be fingerprinted. Because of the nature of the business, pawn shops typically deal with the economically disadvantaged.

Pawn shops date back to ancient times and are one of the earliest forms of lending institutions. With the ascendency of large consumer credit institutions, the pawn shop is no longer a major source of credit. But pawn shops still play an important role in providing credit - particularly to low-income individuals.

"A lot of people have a real negative opinion of pawn shops. A lot of people think that we're fences. But if they need 20 bucks to buy diapers or food, where do they go? This is really their only (alternative,)," a manager said.

"We play a vital role because a lot of our customers have no where to go," said Maria Acuna, who works at Key City. "In the old days, you could go (to a bank) and borrow a hundred dollars."


As Cole visits with the pawn shop people, he codes tickets based on the type of merchandise. Sometimes an item or a familiar name will catch his eye.

"We deal with (some) people time and time again," he said. "You scratch your head and wonder why he's bringing (property) in."

Sometimes, employees will tell Cole something didn't feel right about a certain person. At other times, a person's age will tip him off something's not quite right.

"What is a kid doing with a $300 diamond ring," he said. "Often, you find out he's got his mama's ring. A lot of times the recoveries we make are domestic-related."

At another stop along the way, one pawn shop manager tells Cole a kid spotted his stolen bicycle in the shop. The manager gives Cole the serial number to the bike.

"We got a hold on it," the manager said. "I guess he saw the bike, went home and called."
"That's his bike, huh," says Cole, promising to check it out.

Pawn shops don't want "hot" property because they lose it if it's seized. "You get people you get funny feelings about," one manager said. "And if it ends up getting confiscated, the store loses money. Nine times out of 10, the money's just lost."

Ernest Massey, manager of Wild Bill's on Butternut, said "Most people know better than to bring stolen stuff in, but it still happens occasionally."


Though shop owners are cheerful when Cole visits in the morning, they're not so thrilled to see him in the afternoon.

"If we see him in the afternoon, ... we know he's coming to take something," said Nacho Aguero, manager of the Wild Bill's on Grape.

Shrugging, Aguero adds, "It's just part of our business."

At the first hint that something might be wrong, Bill Horeis, a South First Pawn employee whose worked in the business for decades, said he won't take it.

"(Some people) walk in here, they see me and they leave," he said.

Cole locates more merchandise at some shops than others.

"The more tickets, the more business you've got and the more chance that there'll be stolen stuff," Cole said. "It all goes hand in hand."

Just this week, he busted a renter who was angry with his landlord and pawned an air conditioner.
"Fortunately, (the landlord) had his Social Security number inscribed on top," Cole said. "There's so much (stolen merchandise) out there. It's overwhelming."

This week, he's recovered ladders, a jam box and a cassette radio.
"That's a fair week," he said.


Criminals often count on the fact that most people do not keep their serial numbers nor do they mark their property with some other identifier - such as a drivers license or Social Security number.
"That's the best avenue," Cole said. "If we could train people from the time they're born, it would help us immensely."

Back at the office at around noon, information from the tickets will later be logged in on the department's computer. Since 1987, the department has kept a computer inventory of the merchandise that goes into the pawn shops. After the data is put in by the department's senior citizen volunteers, the computer will spit out a report of merchandise serial numbers matching with stolen property.

Cole calls the so-called "Granny Squad" - Dorothy Sawyer, Cherry Gleason, Shirley Hudson, Ruby McLeod, Jerri Smith and Ruby Riley - who assist him a godsend.

"It's tedious work," he said. "All they ask for is a thank you and a pat on the back. They have truly helped me out."

All content copyright 1996, Tanya Eiserer,The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine


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