Cash for stolen gold

Do Florida’s pawnbroking laws further victimize victims of crime?

At 3 in the morning on Feb. 7, George Fencl received an urgent phone call. It was his girlfriend, Shelly Noblett, and she was in trouble.

“She said ‘George, I’m bleeding, I don’t know what happened. There’s glass all over. I think I broke the sliding-glass door,’” he recalls. She told him that her dog, Winston, had started barking and woke her up. Since her bedroom is on the second floor, she sometimes kept the door to the balcony of her Winter Park townhouse open at night. She got up to shut it and quiet the dog.

“I guess I was irritated, so I closed it pretty hard,” Noblett says. “And when I shut it, it just started shattering, and I could hear it shattering in lots of different pieces. The next thing that I remember is getting up off the floor. I didn’t know how I ended up on the floor, but I was bleeding.”

In her confusion, Noblett thought that she’d slammed the door so hard that she’d shattered it, fallen over, hit her head and perhaps broken her arm. Her first impulse was to call Fencl, who lives in Apopka, to come take her to CentraCare for X-rays. He told her to call 911, but she refused – she didn’t yet realize how badly she was injured and wanted to wait for him instead. “He came about 30 minutes later, and I gotta tell you, the look on his face – there was blood everywhere,” she says.

He rushed her to CentraCare on Aloma Avenue, but it was closed, so they then raced to an emergency room, where she was examined, scanned and X-rayed. “I showed them the damage in my head,” she says, “and I guess when they were looking at my head, they found shrapnel – metal – there, and when they got the X-ray back, it confirmed that there was a bullet in my arm. And it was still in my arm, and it had shattered one of my bones and joint. And then the police showed up.”

Apparently, while Noblett had been at home sleeping, someone with a gun was outside her townhouse. Her dog had probably begun barking because he heard them and was alarmed. Noblett and Fencl figure that when she went to shut the glass door, the gunman (or woman) saw movement in that second-floor balcony doorway and fired the shots – 10 of them – that shattered Noblett’s glass door, grazed her head, left holes in her bedroom walls and a bullet in her arm.

At first, the police (who had come in from Casselberry, because Noblett’s townhouse was in their jurisdiction) questioned Noblett and Fencl – how could she not know that she’d been shot? How did she not see the bullet holes in the walls of her bedroom? Did Noblett have any enemies? Would any of her friends or family have done this to her?

Noblett doesn’t seem like the type to make that kind of enemy: She’s a 46-year-old middle school teacher at Odyssey Middle School, and she was named an Orange County Public Schools Teacher of the Year for 2012-2013. Searches in various court clerk databases don’t turn up any sort of criminal background for her. She’s soft-spoken, polite and warm. But during the interrogation in the hospital, when police asked her whether she would be willing to prosecute the person who did this to her if it turned out to be a friend or family member, she hesitated, which she says made the police focus on her even more intently.

“The guy had me in tears at the hospital,” she says. “This is actually the day of [the incident], as a matter of fact, and he’s accusing me of lying and not being truthful and I was in tears. And finally my mom had to come in because I was so upset. He was like, ‘Why didn’t you call 911, why didn’t you call the ambulance?’ He said, ‘Your room looks like a war zone, there were bullet holes in the wall, shattered glass. I don’t see how you didn’t notice that.’ Well, my room paint was dark red, I wasn’t looking for bullet holes. … It was in the middle of the night.”

Her cell phone was taken from her so officers could go through her messages and call her contacts. Fencl was initially seen as a potential suspect and taken to the Casselberry police station for questioning.

“At the station I was asked about Shelly’s ex-boyfriends and ex-husband; whether they had any arguments and if they were prone to violence,” he says in a written account of the incident that he sent to Orlando Weekly in early April. “[The officer] inquired if I owned a gun or had one at home, and I mentioned that I was in possession of a World War II Japanese rifle that had belonged to my father. (Later that day I learned that they had come to my home and confiscated the rifle, even after they knew the shell casings belonged to a .44 caliber Glock.) I was returned to my car, given a gunpowder residue test, and then released so I could return to the hospital to check on Shelly’s condition.”

Noblett says it wasn’t until one of the officers – Detective Erin Willis – questioned her one-on-one after she’d awoken from surgery to repair her arm that police finally seemed to believe that Noblett was telling the truth about not knowing who did this to her or what, exactly, had happened. Later that day, Fencl says, Willis called him and told him that the initial investigation had been completed. He wasn’t a suspect anymore. It seemed like Noblett and Fencl could just focus on getting her better while the police did their work.

Then they found out that her townhouse had been burglarized while she was in the hospital.

Two days after Noblett was released from the hospital, Fencl went to her home to check things out. “He called me and said, ‘Shelly, your hatbox is missing,’” she says. “I’m 46 years old, and I’ve acquired a lot of jewelry in my life, and I kept it in this round box that he called my hatbox. It was my jewelry box.”

She went to the condo herself and found that most of her jewelry was missing – heirloom pieces, 18-karat-gold necklaces, diamond earrings, watches, pendants, rings. She estimates the value of the missing items at around $10,000. She called the police, and according to the report Casselberry police filed on the incident, the officer called to investigate was concerned that the incident could be related to the shooting. So he contacted Detective Willis, who mentioned that, while police were investigating the shooting, some neighbors were present and it was possible “that they knew the house was unsecure” after police left.

The investigating officer ran a search on the name of one of the next-door neighbors, Johnathan Gray, and found that he had recently pawned some jewelry at Monarch Jewelry and Art in Winter Park. One of the items he sold to Monarch was a jade frog pin – an item that was on the list of things stolen from Noblett’s home. The officer says he questioned Gray, who denied any involvement in the incident. Two days later, Willis met Noblett at Monarch to put a hold on the items that had been pawned so Noblett could try to identify them. Sure enough, Noblett says, it was her stuff.

“It wasn’t all there – I identified 10 to 12 pieces of jewelry, and they were all mine,” she says. According to the police report, the items had been sold to Monarch the same day Noblett was shot, just a couple of hours after police left the scene.

But even though it was clear that the items belonged to her – they matched the descriptions she’d given police, they’d all been pawned by her next-door neighbor on the same day she’d been shot and her house burglarized – Noblett wasn’t going to be allowed to simply take them back. She was told that if she wanted the items, she’d have to pay for them or take the shop to court under what’s called a “replevin action” and let a judge determine whether the items should be returned to her.

According to the Florida Pawnbroking Act, in order for someone to reclaim their stolen goods from a pawnbroker’s shop (or any store that buys and sells secondhand goods), the claimant must send the pawnbroker a certified letter including description of the stolen goods and a police report verifying that the items in question were stolen. After the pawnbroker receives the letter, he or she has 10 days to work something out with the person who’s making the claim – the pawnbroker may return the stolen goods, ask the crime victim to pay to get the stolen items back or simply refuse. The claimant then has a choice to make – simply cough up the cash and take the belongings home, try to haggle with the pawnbroker to negotiate a better price for the goods, or go to court.

The law, which was initially passed by the state Legislature in 1996 with strong support from the pawnbrokers’ trade associations (the Florida Pawnbrokers Association and the National Pawnbrokers Association), has been criticized for victimizing property-crime victims a second time when pawnbrokers request money for stolen goods. In 1999, Dateline NBC did an investigation of Florida pawnshops that suggested that the pawn laws in Florida facilitate crime by giving thieves an easy way to make quick cash on stolen items. The Dateline report, along with investigations by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in 1996 and a 60 Minutes exposé in 1997, caused the Florida Senate to review the state’s pawnbroking laws in 2000 to see whether there really was cause for concern. The report acknowledged that, although the Florida Pawnbrokers Association discourages pawnshops from requesting that crime victims “buy back” their goods, the law doesn’t prohibit them from doing so, and the trade associations and lobbyists opposed any effort to put further onus on the pawnbrokers to shoulder more of the burden for dealing with stolen property than they already do.

Tom Sams, who’s been a director of the Florida Pawnbrokers Association for the past 17 years, says that before the Florida Pawnbroking Act was passed, pawnbrokers were “left out in the cold” and without due process if they were found to have stolen property in their stores. If they were required to turn it over without reimbursement for the money they’d spent, then there were two crime victims instead of just one: the person whose belongings were stolen and the pawnbroker, who had paid a criminal for the goods. Sams says this was extremely problematic because of the number of people who don’t secure their property appropriately or live with someone who is likely to steal and pawn their valuables. For instance, Sams says, when kids would steal from parents and pawn the items, the parents would often refuse to press charges against their own child – as a result, he says, there was no way for the pawnbrokers to recoup their losses. So the law needed to change. Now, he says, the system is more balanced.

“The processes themselves work out very well,” he says. “A person can pick up their property for what the pawnbroker has in it and get immediate receipt of their stolen property.” Alternately, they can file a replevin action in court against the pawnbroker and allow a judge to rule whether the property should be returned. There are no filing fees for the victim and the process is completely free if the person wins the case (if they lose, it is possible that they could be asked to cover court costs for the pawnbroker). When asked whether it seems fair to further victimize the people whose property was stolen in the first place, Sams is cynical.

“Well, I would ask, how easy is it for them to not become a victim?” Sams says. “And now the pawnbroker’s the victim? The pawnbroker who followed the law and records all the information? Why should they be so happy to make the pawnbroker the victim? It’s a tough position. A person says, ‘Why should I have to pay for my property twice?’ They were a victim, they were robbed. If you give them their property back without a [process], then they were never a victim in the first place.”

He suggests that people who find themselves in situations like Noblett’s attempt to negotiate with the pawnbrokers and try to reach a fair deal – perhaps splitting the cost of the stolen property or working out a payment plan. In some cases, pawnbrokers will turn over property at no charge because they think it’s the right thing to do.

Noblett says she did call Monarch to discuss the case, but she says she was told that the store was a victim, too.

One of the shop’s owners, John Przeclawski, says this is the first time he’s ever encountered a situation like this – “We are very careful not to buy anything stolen in the first place,” he says – and so far he’s found it a very unpleasant place to be. He says the conversation he had with Noblett was “not a very positive conversation,” and the two couldn’t come to any kind of agreement.

“We, just like her, are the victims in this process,” he says. “We are holding merchandise we cannot sell, and we paid money for it.”

He says that most people whose homes are burglarized never see their valuables again. “She’s lucky enough to have some chance of recovery because the merchandise is here,” he says.

He sent her a letter dated March 18 stating, “We regret that this theft occurred to you with the perpetrator taking advantage of the fact that you were hospitalized.”

However, he wrote, Monarch purchased the items “in good faith” and suggested that Noblett “focus on the person that actually committed the crime,” rather than on the store. “My understanding is that you are allowed to repurchase the items for what we paid for them,” he closes. “Should you wish to do so, we can make arrangements for payment.”

Johnathan Gray appears to be the person Przeclawski thinks Noblett should focus on. He was arrested on Feb. 12 for burglary, larceny, dealing in stolen property and making fraudulent claims to Monarch about the stolen items. His court date is set for May 29 in Seminole County. Though calls to Casselberry police were not returned, according to the few documents available on Noblett’s case (police declined to release the entire case file because the situation is still under investigation), Detective Willis ran a search on the names of two additional people who lived in the same house next door – Lacy Anderson and Lucas Diaz – and, according to a police report, that search revealed “a pawn transaction that occurred 2/8/2013 at 11:50 hours. Anderson pawned miscellaneous gold jewelry which the victim later identified as belonging to her.” Anderson was arrested in Orange County on March 4 for dealing in stolen property and violation of a pawn statute.

The items Anderson pawned turned up at Sergio’s Fine Jewelry on Semoran Boulevard in Orlando, and the day Noblett showed up with a police officer to identify them, she says she was asked by the woman working at the counter whether she’d be “buying them back that day.” Noblett says she will not pay to recover her own stuff. She’s filed a replevin action against Monarch in Seminole County, and she says she’s working on the paperwork to take Sergio’s to court, too.

On April 11, Shelly Noblett is standing on the sidewalk of an East Orlando strip mall where a business called Cash Pawn is located. Her arm is in a sling, and with her middle-class mom demeanor, she looks a little out of place in this environment. On one side of the mall, a bunch of kids practice skater tricks on a concrete half-wall; on the other side, a couple of guys in dingy white T-shirts sit on the sidewalk outside a convenience store and argue loudly. They might be drunk.

The signs posted in Cash Pawn’s windows are in English and Spanish, and they announce that the shop will buy and loan on electronics, bikes, tools and more. Customers have to wait outside the front door to be buzzed in by someone at the counter. When an Orlando police officer arrives, she escorts Noblett into the store; half an hour later, they exit again. Noblett is empty-handed.

Did they have anything that belonged to her? “Yes.”

Were they willing to give it back? “No. They offered me to buy it back. They only had one thing – a pinkie ring with a floating heart. She advised that I could buy it for $25. But I’ll be damned if they’re going to keep it.”

Noblett says she’ll now add Cash Pawn to the list of places she’ll take to court to retrieve her stolen goods.

According to Jack Gee, a retired law enforcement officer and former president of the Florida Law Enforcement Property Recovery Unit, the current law (and the industry’s refusal to bend on it) doesn’t do a very good job of helping pawnbrokers improve their images. If the industry policed itself better, many law-enforcement agencies believe, there might not be such a huge market in stolen goods in states like Florida, where the concentration of pawn shops is dense. (According to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are 1,432 licensed pawn shops in the state and 78 in Orange County.) When the 1996 law was being debated, Gee says, the industry attempted to pass it off as a regulatory measure that would help combat crime – instead, he says, the law protects unscrupulous pawnbrokers from having to pay the price for taking in stolen goods in the first place. He is quick to point out that not all pawnbrokers are seedy businesspeople – and for those who do business in good faith, this law offers protection; but for those who don’t, it can be seen as a way to shirk responsibility for doing business with thieves.

“There are some heartbreaking times when you meet people who, literally, have to buy their own property back,” Gee says. “It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. It’s not that the pawnshops are evil. They spent money in good faith to buy this property and they don’t want to be out the money either.” He says that if the industry wants to turn its image around, he thinks one good place to start would be to ditch support for a law that seems to let the less-than-savory segment of the pawnbroking industry off the hook too easily.

“What do you think of when you think of pawnshops? Seedy, right?” he says. “And situations like this help keep that reputation going. The Florida Pawnbrokers, they all want to change the public view of them. Well, this is one way of doing it.”

The refusal of three pawnbrokers in a row to return her jewelry certainly hasn’t given Noblett a very rosy view of the industry.

“I never thought much about pawnshops before,” she says as she sits at a Wawa across the street from Cash Pawn. “You see these shows on TV about pawnbrokers, and I guess they’re very idealized.”

She doesn’t show a lot of emotion about the situation until she’s asked how it makes her feel. It’s been more than two months since she was shot in the middle of the night, and she’s not aware of any new leads or suspects in the investigation. People have been arrested for burglarizing her home and stealing her stuff, but she can’t get any of it back until her replevin action cases against the pawnbrokers wind their way through court. She’s living with her parents because she’s afraid to move back to her townhouse, which she just bought two years ago. “I guess I’m just very naive,” she says, her eyes filling with tears.


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