Falling From Grace

Richard Rother lived by his good name. When the cops took that away from him, he walked off a ten-story building.

The stranger asked Rother what he'd pay for the set. Rother explained that wasn't how it was done; it was up to the seller to set a price. The man asked for a hundred dollars. Rother offered fifty. The man wanted to know if Rother was going to turn around and sell the goods to Bankston. Rother said that wasn't how it was done, either, that he couldn't very well offer Bankston something he'd already turned down.

"Not saying that the person you got it from might be, uh, ya de da da, you know what I'm saying," Rother added.

"Ya de da da," the stranger said.
"Well, I mean, you know, it might be, might not be cool," Rother said.
"Oh it is, it's out of California," the stranger said. "You don't even have to worry about it."

The man said he should get more than fifty, seeing as how this was his grandmother's silver. Rother raised his offer to sixty-five, all the while complaining about the beat-up quality of the merchandise. Then the man blurted out a piece of information that should have prompted Rother to back off, just like Bankston, who was no longer a party to the conversation.

"See," the man said, "they screwed me on a will thing. So I just went over there, stole the son of a bitch from them, 'cuz they wouldn't give me my money, you know what I mean."

Rother acted as if he hadn't heard. "Sixty-five, that's my last offer."
He paid the man and loaded the set in his 1971 Volvo. The stranger said he had more silver to sell. Rother gave him his phone number and left.

The stranger headed downtown to the Denver Police Department's property bureau, where he had no trouble producing identification that indicated he was a detective named Richard Mumford. He logged in the $65 and a tape recording of his conversation at That Place as evidence. Then he checked the suspect's license plate and phone number and opened a file on Rother, Russell Richard, DOB 2-15-49.

Staffed by six officers, the anti-fencing unit of the Denver police is the oldest and largest operation of its kind in the state of Colorado. Over the past twenty years, the unit has made hundreds of cases against burglars and fencing operations, often by sending undercover cops into pawnshops, liquor stores, bars, flea markets and secondhand shops, offering supposedly stolen goods for sale. Detective Mumford estimates that he works from 25 to 30 such cases a year, many of which involve multiple defendants.

"Our main function is to go after the burglar and try to follow him to the fence," Mumford says. "However, we also get information from confidential informants that direct us to people who they say are buying."

If no informant is involved, an enterprising officer might try what Mumford calls "a cold hit"--strolling into a business without any introduction and proposing a deal. But the detective insists that his unit is selective about the people they target for sting operations.

"We don't go after the opportunist, someone who's buying maybe one thing," he explains. "We have to prove they're doing it. It can't be one sale, it's got to be three or four. The least we ever do is two.

"We don't just throw darts or open a phone book and say, 'Okay, let's try this guy.' The DA's office won't accept anything like that. We have to have prior information of some sort."

Yet there is nothing in Mumford's report to indicate that he had any information about criminal activity at That Place before he visited the shop last fall. Mumford says he was merely conducting a routine check to see if the owner was requesting identification of potential sellers as required by law. Bankston passed the test, but then Rother showed up--a wandering balloon, just waiting to be popped.

Bankston says he's still wondering why the cops decided to take a run at him. "You would think there'd have to be a history [of buying stolen goods] before they come around," he says. "Maybe one of the other stores, someone who doesn't like me, told them, 'He buys hot stuff.' But I've always been extremely cautious. I feel that the karma you put out is what you're going to get back. To have stolen articles would bring me bad karma."

Several dealers say that the notion of trying to ferret out a major fencing operation among Denver's modest antique stores is absurd. Most of the items that they buy pass through several hands before they ever see them, and unless the piece is particularly rare or unique, it may be impossible to trace its provenance. Unless the seller represents the item as stolen--an admission that only an undercover cop is likely to make--there's almost no way for an honest dealer to determine its purity.

"We're in a strange business," says one prominent South Broadway dealer. "I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've probably bought stuff that was stolen. But how do you know?"

"Most of the antique stores are very cautious about what they take in," adds Bankston. "They would not knowingly buy something stolen because they want to hold on to their businesses."

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