Police have arrested one man and shut down three convenience stores after investigators connected the businesses to fenced stolen goods and illegal gambling practices, officials say.
Detectives padlocked the doors at Floyd Road's Lucky Food Mart, Floyd Road's Food Mart and Buena Vista Road's Pyramid Food Mart after executing simultaneous search warrants Wednesday. The raids were part of a Burglary and Theft Unit initiative to take down business managers profiting from area burglaries, Sgt. Joe Weatherford said.
Weatherford said police began watching these stores while investigating hundreds of burglaries committed over several years.
"One of the main issues that we have had is determining where this stolen property is being liquidated at," he said. "Investigation has led to certain businesses that are actually operating as store fronts. However, they're taking in a lot of the stolen property taken from burglaries and purchasing it from our suspects."
These businesses lure burglary suspects to recidivism because they can easily trade pilfered goods for cash, Weatherford said.
"It's a very attractive crime for them to do when it's easily available to liquidate these stolen items and gain cash for them," Weatherford said. "So we are spearheading a new line in focus of investigation — not just on the burglary end of things and apprehending suspects, but also going after the fencers. And all businesses need to know that we will shut them down at all costs."
Weatherford said agents used undercover tactics to catch business operators purchasing stolen flat screen TVs, game stations and other electronics from burglary suspects, sometimes hours after they had been snatched from Columbus homes.
The stores' owner — who operates all three stores — is being investigated as part of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which allows law enforcement to extend charges to individuals who ordered or assisted others in carrying out criminal activity.
During Wednesday's raids, police charged Gurdeep Singh with two counts of theft by receiving stolen property. Additional arrests may be pending. Singh is a relative of the convenience stores' owner.
Detectives also determined that managers at the Food Mart at 1045 Floyd Road and the Pyramid Food Mart at 3512 Buena Vista Road paid cash prizes to customers using lotto machines. Weatherford said at least $600 worth of prizes were paid out to customers in a matter of weeks.
"We are using these additional crimes to put together a larger web of cases — basically expanding the net of the cases we make — to make stronger, larger cases to go after store owners who have been exempt from prosecution many times in the past," Weatherford said. "That's no longer going to be the case. They are going to be held just as liable if not more so than the managers, than the suspects that sell the stuff to them."
Investigators with the Georgia Lottery Commission Investigators are pursuing independent charges against store operators. The owner has also been stripped of his gambling license, Weatherford said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service also assisted during these investigations.
"Each business has been seized and is going to be placed under the Columbus Police Department's authority and custody," Weatherford said. "This is the penalty for racketeering as well as commercial gambling charges.
Weatherford said Wednesday's raids should come as a warning to any individuals or organizations who buy unusually cheap electronics from suspicious sources.
"To all businesses out here — or anyone that is purchasing items that they knew, or should have known, were stolen from people on the street — we are coming after them," Weatherford said. "We are going to use every resource we have to shut them down."