Odor in the Court

A police sting on a perfume dealer nets a small-time amount of goods--plus two vehicles. The dealer says the whole thing stinks.

This case really smells. The first deal went down on April 8, 1997, in a Kmart parking lot at 50th and Federal. Dennis and Mona Mohan arrived in their BMW and were met by a man who called himself "Earl" and had the product in a Foley's department store bag. The Mohans paid cash for the contents of the shopping bag. After the second deal, which occurred three days later outside a local flea market, the Mohans didn't hear from Earl until he showed up at their house at 5:30 a.m. on May 26--with several detectives from the Denver Police Department's anti-fencing unit in tow. While their two children watched, the Mohans were handcuffed and taken to jail. Their 1989 BMW and 1982 Chevy van were seized by the police.

All for 21 bottles of designer perfume.
The Denver District Attorney's Office says the Mohans purchased the perfume after Earl, aka Detective Damon Bolden, represented it to them as stolen from Foley's. (The police had bought the goods from Foley's at the retail price.) Dennis Mohan, who has a retail shop at Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, says, "In person or over the phone, he never said it was stolen or 'hot.' He just said he had good prices."

The Mohans were charged with criminal theft by receiving. And since both of the perfume transactions occurred inside the Mohans' vehicles, the police were able to invoke a civil public-nuisance statute and take their cars.

Because of the unbridled power of the seizure laws, the Mohans have already lost their vehicles even though they have not been convicted of a crime. In fact, the criminal case against the Mohans is "on hold," according to spokeswoman Sandy Romero of the DA's office. Romero says the charges will be refiled.

That infuriates Dennis Mohan. "I'm sick of running scared," he says. "I'd rather have my day in court so I can tell people what's going on and let them decide."

Under the civil forfeiture law, if legitimate property such as a vehicle is used in the commission of a crime, it can be seized. Those who lose vehicles that way have to file a civil action to get their property returned.

Jim Castle, a lawyer who represented Mona Mohan after she was arrested, says, "The most common example is if you're using your car to deliver cocaine, the police can take your car. But the civil forfeiture situation has created a whole area of law enforcement that wasn't pursued in years past. Basically, the police are trying to get a crime committed in a vehicle so they can seize it."

That tactic may be a prime reason behind the case. Dennis Mohan says a deputy district attorney offered a plea bargain in the criminal case in which the police would return the Mohans' van but would keep the BMW. Asked whether the Denver cops specifically make deals inside vehicles so they can seize the vehicles under forfeiture laws, Lamar Sims, one of District Attorney Bill Ritter's top aides, replies, "Someone who would suggest that is someone who has an agenda. Anytime you're going undercover to make an arrest, you have the concern for the arrest, but also officers' safety. We're not building fleets through asset forfeiture."

But in the Mohans' case, Castle argues, "they were selling legitimate items, and the police have no evidence to the contrary except for the fact that the perfume they were selling at the flea market was cheaper than you can get it at the Cherry Creek Mall. So they go through an elaborate sting operation making sure both deals occur in the Mohans' vehicles. Basically, this is a silly case."

Dennis Mohan isn't amused. "I paid $380 for some perfume I thought was legitimate, and I lost a $30,000 BMW, a $7,000 van, and I had to pay $10,000 for an attorney," he says. "The cops came to us with this deal, and we're supposed to know the perfume is stolen because the guy is carrying it in a Foley's bag? The cops even went into our computer thinking they were going to uncover this big Mafia perfume deal. It's like someone came up with a Hollywood script and we can't do anything to change it. We haven't even had the chance to tell our story in court. It's nonsense."

Neal Richardson, the deputy district attorney handling the case, doesn't think the Mohans have much of a credible tale to tell. "I cannot imagine that anyone who read the case file would have any questions as to why this case was pursued," says Richardson. "This is a no-brainer." Richardson refuses further comment.

The Mohans claim they got hoodwinked because Detective Bolden used slang they weren't familiar with to represent the perfume as stolen. They also say they don't understand how Bolden picked up the scent at the Mohans' flea-market booth on Smith Road.

Bolden begs off interviews because the case is still in litigation. In his affidavit, he explained why he targeted the Mohans' booth: "I'm aware through my training with the anti-fencing unit that flea markets are a common venue for those who traffic in stolen goods to ply their trade. I noticed, when walking past the stand that Mona was selling from, that she was selling perfume and cologne at substantially below market value, based upon my experience in the marketplace as a consumer."

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