Odor in the Court
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."
"What the hell are flea markets for in the first place?" responds Dennis Mohan. "You come there to find things at lower prices. Besides, Bolden never looked at our prices, because he couldn't have, for the simple reason that we don't put price stickers on the merchandise. That way I can mix the prices around depending on what the customer looks like they can afford. I can't bargain with a customer if there's a price sticker already on there."
Mohan points out that he's been in the perfume business for eight years and knows how to get good products for low prices.
"Sometimes I get stuff for 90 percent off because I'll get it bulk," he says. "Usually I'll buy $8,000 worth at a time from my brother-in-law in Miami. There are instances where I've gotten an eight-ounce bottle of Oscar de la Renta for $20 when it retails for $115. I'll turn around and sell it for $40 or $50 at the flea market. But to the cops it looked like it was too good to be true."
When Mohan heard about Earl approaching his wife at the flea market, it didn't cause even a blip on his radar screen. "We didn't even think about the first deal because it was so small," says Mohan. "You know how many 'Earl's I've met in my life? I just thought he was a jobber who goes to close-out sales and buys all the stuff, then looks to unload it to someone else."
In taped conversations of the two transactions, Bolden uses some lingo that could arouse suspicion--or could be ambiguous. At no time in the conversations, according to Bolden's affidavit, does the undercover cop say the goods were stolen or "hot." He does use the word "boost." On the audio recording from the second deal, Bolden says, "This stuff is right out of the store, and it's kind of difficult for me. I can boost 'em, but it's cool. Like I said, if I could get more at a time, I would. But the way I'm ripping and running, it's a little bit tough."
Castle says he understands how the Mohans might not have picked up the hints Bolden was dropping. "When the detective had his first conversation with Mona, it had nothing to do with stolen items," says Castle. "He said he was 'in the business.' But the police didn't record that conversation. Then on the tapes he starts throwing out lingo like 'boost' and 'ripping and running.' If he said the stuff was 'hot,' then everyone knows what that means. But 'ripping and running'? I've never heard that one, and I've been doing criminal defense work for almost twenty years."
Dennis Mohan says he wasn't even paying attention when Bolden was talking about how he got the perfume, because he was busy making sure the product wasn't counterfeit. "Besides," says Mohan, "'boost' means nothing to me, especially when the guy is mumbling to himself the whole time. So how can he assume we know what he's trying to do to us? This is a shitty little deal that made me $65, and I wasn't trying to pick it apart."
But the district attorney's office did and filed a motion for a summary judgment. The Denver District Court agreed, granting the summary judgment, which so far has denied the Mohans their day in court. Judge Connie Peterson wrote: "The evidence is so one-sided that the People must prevail as a matter of law...Even drawing the inferences in the light most favorable to the Defendants, the Court finds that nothing in the transactions between Detective Bolden and the Defendants has the indicia of legitimate wholesale business."
The Mohans are appealing the decision, and the criminal case against them for theft by receiving is currently on hold. But they say they can only guess as to why the police targeted them. Dennis Mohan thinks that it may have to do with his 1995 conviction for selling counterfeit sunglasses. He pleaded guilty to that charge.
"The sunglasses are one of the first things the cops bring up when talking about this case," says Mohan. "But in that case we co-operated with the authorities and surrendered everything, including the next shipment. That incident scared the hell out of me, and I learned my lesson.
"Maybe it was just the fact that I drive a BMW and the cops thought that was suspicious for a guy with a booth at the flea market. But it's all speculation because we can't get any answers.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.