Pawn Job

A Tucson man knows where to find his stolen computer—so why can't he get it back?

To unearth the roots of his anger, Darius Gemmel doesn't need the help of a shrink. He just needs to look a few feet away, where his laptop computer gathers dust.

It was on April 29, 2011, that Gemmel's midtown home was ransacked; among the things stolen was his MacBook Pro. As it happens, Gemmel is what you might call a detail-oriented fellow, the kind who actually logs serial numbers from his more prized possessions—you know, the way the police are always telling us to do.

Which brings us to EZ Money Pawn on East 22nd Street, where Gemmel's computer has sat for months. He knows it's his, because, well, he has the serial number.

So you might anticipate one of those rare happy endings, where the guy retrieves his personal property in a deeply righteous reunion. But that's not quite how this story goes.

Instead, even though Gemmel knows where his computer is—with a bit of fibbing, he was even allowed to examine it—he can't seem to get his MacBook back.

And get this: Even though police have identified the woman who sold Gemmel's hot computer to EZ Money Pawn, she has yet to be charged.

Police say that Gemmel has been rude in his calls to them, employing colorful language. Meanwhile, out at EZ Money Pawn, standing amid an inventory that ranges from leaf-blowers to wedding rings, manager Tony Hernandez blames Gemmel for the dilemma. "If he was not the kind of person that he is, it might be resolved at this point," Hernandez says. "But he's really being difficult with the police officers and with us."

In other words, if Darius Gemmel didn't have such a bad attitude about getting ripped off and then finding his stolen property, only to be told that he can't have it back—if only he'd addressed the situation with light-hearted banter instead of deepening frustration—things would be OK.

Gemmel calls the situation Kafkaesque. "The police are stonewalling me because I raised such a stink about how they handled my case," he says. "They have done absolutely nothing to take any action against anyone."

To be fair, the cops are up against a tapestry of laws that often seem designed to protect the pawn industry. Then there's the fact that people often try to scam pawnshops by selling their merchandise to another person or to the shop itself, and then later claiming it was stolen. As a result, burglary victims such as Gemmel must often wait for a conviction to retrieve their property.

Those convictions do not typically come easily. "Often times, officers bring cases in, and we decline them, because we don't have the evidence that the person (who sold the merchandise) knew that the items were stolen," says Malena Acosta, supervisor of the Pima County Attorney Office's property-crimes unit. "Or (the suspects) have a story that a jury perhaps would believe. ... It just depends on the evidence we have."

As for pawn shops, "they really are protected," Acosta says. "They have a property interest in the stolen item, believe it or not. That means they can get restitution from the criminal."

And if there is no criminal conviction, the case might go to civil court. "That's done through law enforcement," Acosta says. "Someone files it; you have to go to court; and the judge basically tells the victim that they can have their property back."

How often that happens remains unclear. But Tucson does suffer roughly 5,000 burglaries per year, and all of those stolen goods certainly don't end up at the nearest yard sale or swap meet.

In turn, riding herd on the city's proliferating pawn shops is a time-consuming, costly endeavor. The shops are required to collect fingerprints and identification from the sellers and forward that information to the Tucson Police Department. At any given time, TPD devotes some four officers, a detective, a sergeant and office staff to scan those transactions for stolen goods. The tab for that oversight runs approximately $700,000 a year.

In 2010, the city further stiffened electronic-reporting requirements for pawn shops, and added a $1 fee to all transactions. The fees cover roughly half of the annual monitoring costs. In addition, a $1,000 licensing tax is levied against the busier shops.

Despite all that, Darius Gemmel's computer still sits at EZ Money Pawn. He says there was a civil court hearing scheduled for May 9, when he hoped a judge would order his laptop returned. But then that date was mysteriously pulled. He admits becoming a bit cranky with the police, after getting what he describes as a big runaround.

But according to Sgt. Maria Hawke, a TPD spokeswoman, the department has taken every possible measure to close Gemmel's case. On May 25, she says, an officer presented it to the Pima County Attorney's Office for review. "That implies that he's moving forward with the case. If the county attorney thinks the case is strong enough, they'll issue it to the grand jury. But that's a big if.

"Yes, it means that an arrest hasn't been made yet," Hawke says. "But it doesn't mean it's not being followed up on. It means they're making sure they have the best possible case so that they don't prematurely arrest—only to have it dismissed at the County Attorney's Office later on, because they don't feel like it's a strong-enough case."

Either way, Hawke says that keeping Gemmel from retrieving his MacBook a year after the burglary is not unusual. "If you think about it, until (police) have definitive proof that it's the right computer, and they have a suspect in custody and can basically close out the case, it's an item of evidence.

"So that pawnshops don't become unwitting victims in these crimes, they're able to hold on to the property until the case is closed. And unfortunately, that can take a very long time."

A long time indeed. For Darius Gemmel, it amounts to 13 months and counting.

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