Phones are ringing and cops in street clothes are barking out questions to each other from their workstations on the second floor of the Anaheim PD.
One of them helps a man pick through stacks of boxes piled high on a table in the middle of the room — the haul from a big bust earlier that morning.
Turns out two of the man’s employees had, for some time, been stealing pricey toy collectibles from a warehouse in Anaheim, and reselling them on eBay and other e-commerce websites.
Thanks to the work of the tenacious team on the APD’s Burglary and Auto Theft Detail (one detective posed as a buyer at a meeting with the seller), the jig is up.
And the man, Steve Fujimura, chief executive and founder of Bluefin Distribution, is grateful to be recovering collectibles with a total estimated value of $50,000.
“They (APD detectives) did a great job,” said Fujimura, whose company specializes in Japanese-made collectibles from such big names as Bandai Co. Ltd.
The APD’s Burglary and Auto Theft Detail has been on a big roll lately, nabbing a suspected serial home burglar who ripped off sports memorabilia collections, a man accused of planting pipe bombs in public, a pair of accused burglars who hit up pharmacies for prescription drugs, and much more.
On the same morning APD detectives were inventorying the stolen collectibles — the lead detective on the case was Merisa Leatherman, a newbie to the unit — two more were working on a case involving two suspects who entered several mom-and-pop stores, grabbed Lotto display cases, and then fled.
As higher-ups at the APD see it, the Burglary and Auto Theft Detail almost always is on a roll.
“They do a phenomenal job, day in and day out,” said Lt. Eric Trapp, whose duties include oversight of the Property Crime Section of Investigations.
Deputy Chief Julian Harvey swung by the unit on the morning of the toy bust to deliver his kudos.
In his office, Sgt. Ben Starke, who runs the Burglary and Auto Theft Detail, held up several news releases about the unit’s recent arrests.
“I haven’t even had time to go through these to write up ‘Atta boys’ to the team,” Starke said.
He looked out his open door to the workstations where his detectives toil.
“Every day, they’re doing stuff like this,” Starke said. “It’s a super busy unit.”
Starke, who started at the APD as a cadet on 2001 and became a cop in 2003, was only three weeks into his new assignment as sergeant of the unit on the morning of the toy bust, April 26.
“On my first day,” said Starke, who transferred from patrol, “I expected to see detectives sitting quietly at their desk, working the phones or pulling up surveillance video on their computers.”
Instead, Starke was asked if he wanted to go along while a search warrant was being served on a house in Whittier — the home of Jonas McClanahan, whom APD police so far have linked to at least 11 residential burglaries, including one in Northern California (read about McClanahan’s arrest here).
And it’s been a flurry of activity for Starke ever since.
Technically, the APD’s Burglary and Auto Theft Detail is viewed as a starter detective unit whose members eventually move onto other units, such as homicide.
In reality, said Starke, his detectives — George Barraza, Dave Hermann, Armando Pardo, James C. (“J.C.”) Rodriguez, Merisa Leatherman, Jason Sivgals, David Watson, Connie Najmulski, and another who requested his name not be used — are among the top detectives at the APD.
Take, for example, Hermann, who recently was named APD’s Investigator of the Year for 2015.
Hermann, 49 — nicknamed “The Hermannator” — is regarded as a tireless detective who works at warp speed, and whose extensive background makes him an ideal mentor to cops new to the unit, such as Leatherman.
“I love my job,” said Hermann, who has a wife, Cyndi, and son Ryan 5. “I love coming to work every day. And I love putting bad people in jail.”
Hermann was offered a job on the homicide unit, but he declined.
“Too slow paced,” he said.
Hermann’s close friend and colleague, J.C. Rodriguez, looked up from his adjacent workstation and gestured at Hermann.
“Tenacious,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the word that best describes him. He’s diligent. He doesn’t stop.”
Said Starke of Hermann: “He operates at a speed that nobody else here does.”
The Burglary and Auto Theft Detail handles auto and home burglaries, shoplifting, theft, arson and cases involving bombs. It used to be two separate units but became a single unit during budget-tightening forced by the 2008 recession.
The unit has the highest caseload of any other APD unit, Starke said, with a total of 977 active cases as of April 26.
“Each of these cases has a victim and a crime,” Starke said.
Residential burglaries, arson cases and crimes involving bombs get top priority, since in all three the possibility of a victim getting hurt or worse is high, Starke said.
The Burglary and Auto Theft unit is helped greatly, Starke said, by cops and professional staff that belong to other divisions of the APD, mainly the Crime Task Force Unit, Vice (they handle undercover operations), Forensics and Crime Analysis.
“Without their help,” Starke said, “we would be dead in the water. Everyone works together seamlessly.”
In addition to nine detectives, Starke supervises five other full-time members of the Burglary and Auto Theft unit: cadet Ashley Simpson, civilian investigator Mari Aborqui; professional support staff Janet Pomeroy and Lorelei Livingston, and secretary Maggie Flynn.
Being a detective on the unit is a constant juggling act that involves such things as waiting for DNA results to come in, working leads on new cases, and dropping everything to make big arrests like the sting that nabbed the two suspects in the collectible case.
“They’re running around rampant doing the best they can,” Starke said of his team, whose members work four 10-hour shifts per week.
Conversation picked up in the office.
Then some detectives left.
Others breezed in.
“These guys are having fun,” said Starke, who worked as a mechanic for Toyota and a small auto repair shop before deciding on a career in law enforcement.
“But they’re all working hard.”
He added: “I’m in awe of how well they work together. It humbles me. I’m a firm believer that if people are kicking butt, stay out of their way.”