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Justen Akins knew where to turn when he was desperate for heroin and had no money:

A pawnshop.

But not just with his own valuables. When no one was around, he took the key to his mother’s small jewelry safe and swiped her diamond ring and diamond earrings, valued at more than $6,000.

The 26-year-old left his mother’s Niagara Falls home and headed to a Town of Tonawanda pawnshop, where he pawned the jewelry and his laptop computer for a fraction of their value – $500.

Months later, when Shelly Akins discovered the thefts, she also discovered two terrible secrets: Her son was the thief, and he was an addict.

“Mom, I’m a closet heroin addict,” he confessed when she showed up at his basement apartment in his grandparents’ North Tonawanda home to retrieve the pawn tickets so she could buy back her possessions.

It is a common scenario for addicts – stealing jewelry and selling it on the cheap to get their next high. It is something that is happening routinely in cities, suburbs and rural areas, police say.

Addicts, who often enter the drug world by way of the family medicine cabinet, where prescription opiate painkillers are stored, soon find their way to the bedroom jewelry box for family treasures or to the garage for a set of expensive tools.

The valuables bring quick cash at pawnshops, cash-for-gold businesses or secondhand stores throughout the region. For desperate drug addicts, there’s no haggling for a good price – they just want some quick money.

“They want to feed their addiction,” said State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli, whose investigators recently arrested a young man who stole $26,000 worth of jewelry and tools from his parents’ home in Darien and then sold it all to a pawnshop to supply his heroin addiction.

“Why wouldn’t you ask a 20-year-old male how he came to have women’s jewelry ... to sell?” asked Erie County Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Brinkerhoff, who says many pawnbrokers are not interested in such details when there is a big profit to be made off addicts.

For years, as the opiate epidemic has increased, area police have pushed for stricter regulations on how these businesses operate.

Help is now on the way.

A proposed law

Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, plans to introduce a law soon that will require pawnshops and similar enterprises to hold merchandise for a 15-day period before it can be sold.

Descriptions of the goods will be posted on a secure website, where police can check the items against lists of stolen property from their municipalities.

“We’re told that when the stolen gold jewelry is taken to pawnshops and cash-for-gold type places, the items are melted down, and there is no way to get them back,” Lorigo said. “They are unrecoverable. Giving police 15 days and an electronic record-keeping system is reasonable, something I think we can all get behind.”

What makes the theft of jewelry so tempting, according to Nigrelli, is that jewelry lacks serial numbers, unlike larger possessions in a home. Making gold even more tempting has been the rise in the precious metal’s value, which now sells for more than $1,300 an ounce.

There’s also another dynamic involved.

Years of doctors writing prescriptions for highly addictive synthetic opiate painkillers, without thinking through the potential consequences for their patients has spawned a growing number of opiate addicts, who might otherwise never have felt the pull of opiates and less-expensive heroin, according to police and addiction treatment experts.

With more addicts hard up to buy pills and heroin, theft has risen, police say.

Until now, countermeasures to cut off the quick cash through thefts that addicts rely upon have been low on the list of measures to battle the opiate epidemic.

Before the County Legislature votes on the law, Lorigo said, there will be meetings later this month with detectives and members of the business community.

“We want feedback,” he said.

Playing catch-up

Buffalo already requires business owners to hold jewelry and other valuables they purchase for 21 days, in addition to requiring written descriptions of the items that are available to police. This kind of scrutiny discourages pawnbrokers and other secondhand businesses from taking in stolen goods, according to Erie County Sheriff’s Senior Detective Alan N. Rozansky.

“Some of these businesses in the county will melt the gold jewelry right away, and then there is no way for us to identify it,” Rozansky said. “It’s gone.”

Gold, he added, has become such a hot commodity that it has created some strange bedfellows.

“It’s so profitable that in Orchard Park there’s a store that sells hams and also buys gold,” Rozansky said.

Investigators, he explained, currently have very little legal standing when they enter pawnshops and other precious-metal establishments searching for stolen items.

“We’ve been thrown out of some pawnshops and cash-for-gold stores and told not to come back until we have a warrant,” Rozansky said.

That’s not to say addicts always get away with their thefts.

About a week ago in Clarence, Ryan Beck, 20, pawned a gold and diamond necklace he allegedly stole in a home burglary. When deputies arrested him, he admitted that he uses heroin and “anything else he can get his hands on,” Rozansky said.

West Seneca Detective Robert Bebak recalls a conversation he had not long ago with a pawnbroker that left him disturbed at how some individuals do business.

“I asked the employee if she remembered this guy coming in and selling her women’s jewelry. She said, ‘Yeah, he’s been in here before. He has issues.’ I said, ‘Do you mean along the lines of drugs?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ”

When Bebak asked her why she would buy jewelry from a drug addict, the detective said, he was taken by her response.

“Well, that’s what we do,” she said.

For police to have a fighting chance at recovering stolen jewelry, Bebak said, they need time and technology to investigate electronically and more efficiently.

“All we’re asking for is at least a two-week hold. With the purchased items on a secure website, it would also save the towns and cities money. Think of all the time it takes for a detective to go from one pawnshop in one community to the next,” Bebak said.

The effort to monitor merchandise, police added, is not intended to hamper pawnshops or secondhand stores.

“The whole spirit of this law is not to harm but to give us the tools to do our job and protect law-abiding citizens in the recovery of their property,” Bebak said.

Framing the argument for the law in another context, he said: “Think of a grandmother in a family who has a unique heirloom, a ring with a gem, and within two days it is melted down and sold,” Bebak said. “What is priceless to a family because it has been in the family forever is now gone forever.”

Brokers’ perspective

Several area pawnbrokers say they already cooperate with police and insist they do not intentionally buy stolen merchandise.

Eric Pallas, the owner of Buffalo Jewelry & Loan, said workers at his stores in the Town of Tonawanda and South Buffalo take photographs of the items they buy and require sellers to provide photo identification of themselves.

The sellers also are required to sign a statement certifying that they own the merchandise being sold.

Pawnbrokers can end up on the short end financially if they buy stolen merchandise, he added.

“It is not advantageous for us to do business with drug addicts, because we run the risk of losing money. Generally what happens is, if the police confiscate something, there is a criminal charge against the person who sold it. If there is a plea deal, part of it includes restitution to us,” Pallas said. “But keep in mind, you can’t get blood from a stone.”

A Depew pawnshop worker said that while police may have an unfavorable opinion of pawnbrokers, they provide a valuable service.

“A pawnshop is more or less for people who are struggling with their bills or looking for a good deal,” said Jennifer, who asked that her last name be withheld. “The cops believe pawnshops are for the sale of stolen merchandise, but we were around before this prescription pill epidemic.”

She said it is easy to spot potential customers who may be trying to peddle stolen items.

“You can just tell by the way they look. They are strung out,” she said.

Other pawnbrokers claim it is difficult to discern if an individual is a drug addict, explaining that their customers do not walk in announcing their addiction and that they need money for drugs.

Jennifer, though, may be more attuned than most. While being interviewed, she paused to take a phone call. She explained that it was her brother, a heroin addict, calling from jail.

“He told me jail isn’t working,” she said after completing the call. “He wants to get out, and he says he’ll go to rehab.”

In the all-too-familiar scenario, her brother had gone to jail because he stole from family members.

“Rather than being arrested for drugs,” Brinkerhoff, the sheriff’s detective, said, “they steal from loved ones, and that’s how they end up in jail.”

A mother’s regret

When Shelly Akins went to recover the items her son had pawned, she said, she was informed that the 120-day period to reclaim the jewelry had lapsed and all that remained was a loose diamond taken from its setting in her gold ring.

The ring, earrings and a garnet ring, along with the laptop, had all been sold.

“They wrote me off as the mother of an addict and basically said go away or have your son arrested. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t send my son to prison.”

It was a decision she deeply regrets. Justen died two months ago of a heroin overdose.

“He’d be in prison,” she said, “but at least my son would be alive today.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com