You might not be surprised to learn that Alex Gonzalez is an unhappy camper, considering he has spent much of the last four years in pawnshops.

For the Arizona Pawnshop Association and its public-image-improvement efforts, the problem is that you might not be surprised; for Gonzalez, who has been fingerprinted and photographed recently with a court date looming, the situation is more threatening. Four years in pawnshops would be paradise compared to nine years in prison.

"How much you guys want for this?" The tattooed guy with the scraggly beard at Central Pawn in Phoenix holds up a file and a wrench, shuffling in his jeans and blue tank top, waiting for Gonzalez to answer.

Oh, if the transactions were all this simple--but then again, that's life: You can be a churchgoing individual and yes-sir your way to a $52,000 job as vice president of one of the city's biggest pawnshops and father a baby girl you and your wife thought you'd never have, and still the dice seem to roll someone else's way in the end.

"Oh, sir," Gonzalez says to him, "I don't know. Those fine items. . . . How about two bucks?"

Scraggly Guy turns, says to his female companion, you got two bucks? She pokes around in her wallet. "You just saved me a whole lot of work," the man tells Gonzalez.

"Oh, okay, how about five bucks?" Gonzalez banters.
Four and a half years ago, he chanced into pawnshop duty, liked it, enjoyed the people, found he had a knack for it. Even without dealing in adult video, a moneymaker he wouldn't go for because--well, to be honest, it offended his wife, and this was a family thing they had going--even without that, he brought money in, because customers liked him.

The couple in denim laugh, and the woman gives him one of those sly, tilted grins and meows, "A deal's a deal."

He smiles back, but inside, Alex Gonzalez is a tormented 30-year-old man. He's not the type to let on, not even when everyone around him is baffled over his indictment for trafficking in stolen property. Only Debra, his 24-year-old wife, whom he met eight years ago at the drive-through window of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, can measure his silence and know he's 20 different places in his thoughts.

The source of Gonzalez's misery: one set of Ping golf clubs, not even matching, and a seemingly weak felony case gone wild.

"I feel like Richard Kimble from The Fugitive," Gonzalez says.
His attorney, Larry Debus, calls the case "the most egregious abuse of the grand jury system" he's ever seen. Debra Gonzalez says, "If they knew Alex, they'd know how ridiculous it is."

And in a business whose stereotype calls for shady characters, Gonzalez would seem to be the unlikeliest of culprits: He's a polite sort, a deacon at his church with a reputation for helpfulness. Not long ago, he and his wife gave up their house to a struggling large family. Detectives like him. Originally hired by Central Pawn as a part-timer, he worked his way up to a manager's position and eventually to the main store as vice president of the company.

"I started seeing the other side of it," says Debra Gonzalez. "There are people who don't have credit, and they need money. Really good people. A lot of people with pride, they don't want to borrow from other people. There were people who you could see were really hungry, and they brought in stuff that wasn't worth anything, and Alex would give them money and then he would come home and say, 'Baby, don't get mad, but I gave this lady $20 today.'"

Bill Jachimek, president of Central Pawn, claims the whole situation was created by a vengeful former detective named James J. Finnerty. Last month, Jachimek filed a complaint with the Phoenix Police Department alleging that detectives on the Gonzalez case behaved inappropriately, particularly Finnerty.

That dirty-dealing stigma is usually reserved for pawnshops, where, rumor has it, Honesty was last seen hocking a ring for the bus ride home. This is the stereotype: Money above all.

But surprise--Phoenix police say scruples are rampant in the pawn business.

Pawnshops are the poor man's bank of the Nineties, a last resort that has blossomed as the middle class has shrunk, where desperation and deception and desire and joy go on display alongside the guns and TVs and precious stones. The informal, everyone's-invited nature of the party lures a criminal element. Sure, there are checks and balances, but crime still charms its way in.

That is what police say happened in the case of Alex Gonzalez. Those who were in the store at 4420 North Central when everything went down tell a different story. Many observers can't believe the case has gone this far, even in a business so competitive that detectives say people won't hesitate to turn each other in for wrongdoing.

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Marc Ramirez