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South on Central Avenue is the Jewel Box, where Morrey Reznik and his son Steve are the Sanford & Son of pawn, the likable curmudgeon and the hepcat with an edge, working out of a spacious, brightly lighted store flowing with merchandise: TVs, answering machines, turquoise bola ties, VCRs, bicycles, compact discs. When he strikes up conversations with strangers, Morrey waits for the inevitable question: So, what do you do for a living? When he says he's a pawnbroker, they kind of shrink back, as if they've stumbled onto some dark alley. Whereas if he says something about, say, being in the jewelry business, it's a different story.
"We are instant cash," he says. "That's the thing."
Hospital emergencies. Vacation funds. Maybe people are going on vacation and don't want to leave certain items in their home. Or someone gets up in the morning, his battery's dead and he needs to get to work. Somebody else gets arrested for having too many outstanding tickets, or maybe they just need the money to pay off other loans.
"There's one man comes in and gets $40,000 every four months [to pay off] bank loans," Reznik says. A lot of money, yes. Pawnshops are for everyone. What does he pawn? "Diamonds," Reznik says dreamily. "Beautiful diamonds."
But mostly his clients are people needing small amounts of money, people without credit cards or the time to wait for a bank to approve a loan. And since they don't make a whole lot of money, they don't have bank accounts. The Federal Reserve estimates that the number of American families without bank accounts has grown from 9 percent to 14 percent since 1978. Along with check-cashing services, which have grown from 2,000 to more than 5,000 nationally since 1988, pawnshops give these people a place to go. The result is a separate banking system for people whose lot it is to constantly scrape the corners of their wallets, whether through misfortune or mismanagement.
"People just need to borrow money, and we lend them money," says Jachimek. "That's our business."
Pawnshops are required to submit forms--police tickets--provided by the department, reporting every transaction involving property with a market value of $25 or more. The slips are then entered into the police department's computer system, and serial numbers are checked against data banks of stolen property. Because so many police slips are received by the department--about 300,000 were taken in last year--pawnshops are required to hold items purchased for resale for ten days before doing anything with them; Central's policy is to cushion that period with an extra day. If an item checks out as stolen, the department then places it on police hold, first orally, followed within two days by a written letter, to await police pickup.
It sounds simple, but there are so many variables--the department is notoriously behind in its computer entry, someone on vacation doesn't report property as stolen until well after it's gone through a pawnshop--that even the safeguards can't catch everything. Matters of timing add all sorts of judgment calls to the process.
Still, the rules are pretty clear as far as what forms to fill out, how long to hold purchased property and what information needs to be obtained from the seller. Complications arise when a pawnshop fears something might be stolen, and there are unwritten methods of handling those transactions that detectives approve of and reluctantly admit; other methods they outright deny ever signing off on.
However, nowhere in anyone's rulebook does it say what to do if someone suddenly freaks in midtransaction and bolts out of the store. Alex Gonzalez found that out.
Two years ago, the Phoenix Police Department's pawnshop unit was reorganized with Sergeant Marvin Jewell as its head; he was given four new detectives. Now working out of the North Resource Bureau on Union Hills Drive, the additional staff gave the unit monitoring power it hadn't had in seven years.
Phoenix's 36 pawnshops are evenly split between north and south boundaries, and Detective Bob Lockwood gets the southern half all to himself. The problem, in terms of workload, is that Lockwood's territory--everything south of Glendale Avenue, west of Central Avenue and everything south of Thomas Road, east of Central Avenue--also includes the majority of secondhand stores and swap meets, operations that also fall under pawn detail jurisdiction.
After he got his new assignment, Lockwood gave his pawnshops six months to get in line. His tight rein, he says, so angered one pawnbroker that the guy filed a complaint against him full of false allegations. He adds this as if to say, hey, these things happen.
He is not at liberty to discuss, however, either Bill Jachimek's allegations concerning pawn detectives or the case involving Alex Gonzalez because an in-house investigation is being conducted. "I like him," Lockwood says of Gonzalez, who has spoken highly of the detective, "but that's all that I can say."
He estimates conservatively that 40 percent of all pawnshop merchandise is stolen property; however, only 1 to 3 percent is actually determined to be stolen.
"The problem," says Sergeant Mike Torrez, a police spokesman, "is that people don't put any identifying marks on their stuff or get the serial numbers. There wouldn't be so many pawnshops in the Valley making such a good business at it if people did that."