COLUMBIA — Investigating the theft of 16 computers from MU last week, university police used information from an online pawn shop database to find their suspect, a former teaching assistant who worked in the German and Russian Studies Department.
Police arrested Marina D. Somers, 27, who used to teach elementary German, after they received sales data about three laptops from the database.
The database, leadsonline.com, is used by more than 3,000 pawn shops and 700 police departments nationwide. It’s the most common pawn shop database in the South and Midwest, Columbia police Detective Vance Pitman said. Pitman said pawn shop owners are now required to sign up for the service to get their license.
“It’s really a great advance in us communicating with law enforcement,” said Brian Mayse, manager of Family Pawn, 2416 Paris Road, where the three laptops were pawned.
Mayse said he suspected the laptops were stolen because they were identical and because they were pawned over the course of three days. He contacted police, who visited his store last week. Police identified a suspect after looking at video surveillance footage and driver’s license information in the database.
Dan Trim, owner of Tiger Pawn, 1209 Business Loop 70 E., said another eight of the laptops were pawned from his shop Sept. 27 to Oct. 9.
“The person had been doing this over the course of a couple of weeks,” Trim said. “She brought one in, and then another and then another.”
Tiger Pawn also uses LeadsOnline to report its transactions. Five of the laptops have been recovered, but the pawn shop sold the other three to customers who paid cash.
“We’re trying to figure out who we sold them to,” Trim said.
MU police Capt. Brian Weimer said LeadsOnline was used in the investigation, but he declined to release other details about the case until it has progressed through the courts. He said that 10 of the 16 computers have been recovered and returned to the German department. The original number of computers reported stolen was 14.
Dallas-based LeadsOnline started in 2000 and was the brainchild of a police officer who wanted an easier way to track pawn shop sales data, company spokeswoman Stephanie Christiansen said.
“Before, officers had to travel from pawn shop to pawn shop” and collect individual pawn tickets, Christiansen said. “Generally, they were months behind.”
Mayse said he has been using LeadsOnline for years and that every pawn shop is required to report its transactions.
“All of our serial numbers, makes and models get transferred to the police on a daily basis,” Mayse said. “They get this information from pawn shops all over the country.”
Under Missouri law, pawn shop owners who falsify transaction records or don’t comply with police investigations of suspected stolen property could lose their license and face a $5,000 fine and six months in jail.
Pitman, the Police Department’s main investigator in cases in which stolen property ends up in pawn shops, said the police have subscribed to LeadsOnline since 2000, when it merged with PILET, a local database the department used in the 1990s. The database contains all of the information that’s normally on a handwritten pawn ticket, Christiansen said. Police can search by date range, region, suspect’s name or serial number if that’s available. Even general descriptors can work, she said.
“They can type in ‘diamond ring’ and they’ll get stuff back,” Christiansen said.
Pitman said some of the database’s features make his job easier. He said he can save a query so that the database will automatically preform the search daily and e-mail him if it gets a hit. The database is free for pawn shops, but police must pay an annual subscription fee. Christiansen said the subscription cost varies based on the size of the department and how much information it wants. She said the highest level for a town the size of Columbia would be less than $10,000.
Pitman said that one drawback to the database is that criminals are starting to learn that police use the tool. But, he said, stolen items still turn up at pawn shops, even months after the theft has occurred.
“On Tuesday we found an iPod that was stolen over a year ago,” he said. “If the public learns to record their serial numbers, it would make it so much easier.”