Fullerton Police Capt. Don Bankhead was just sitting at home minding his own business when a telephone caller asked if he'd like to buy some stolen jewelry.
Convinced it was a prankster, the city's head of detectives declined. But when the caller persisted, Bankhead played along in a spur-of-the-moment sting--meeting, negotiating with and ultimately arresting a suspect Monday on suspicion of grand theft and possession of stolen property.
"I've been off the street too many years to have to go out arresting them, so now I have 'em calling me," the 53-year-old captain joked Monday.
The suspect first called Bankhead's unlisted number Friday evening, saying that a mutual friend named Jimmy had told him he might be interested in buying some rings, loose diamonds and other jewelry. When Bankhead said no, the caller persisted.
"He flat out told me he was on probation for theft, that he had jewelry he had to get rid of and he was trying to sell it for more than what his fence would give him for it," Bankhead said.
The skeptical detective captain eventually said he "might be interested in buying those loose diamonds because they can't be traced" and told the caller to telephone him at work early Monday.
Instead, Bankhead said the caller telephoned nervously Sunday morning and asked, "'You're not the police, are you?"' To which Bankhead responded, "No, are you?"
Posed as 'Financial Consultant'
After 28 years in law enforcement work, the rest came easily. Bankhead told the caller he was a 'financial consultant' and expressed concern that the loose stones would be traceable.
Still uncertain whether he was being "had," Bankhead waited Monday for the call, which came in on his private line at the Fullerton police station at 8:30 a.m. Wired for sound for the first time in years, the captain headed for a 10 a.m. meeting at a Denny's restaurant on Harbor Boulevard.
"I met him inside the restaurant. . . . He assured me the jewelry had been stolen from somewhere out in the (San Fernando) Valley," Bankhead said. "Then we went out in my car, we sat down, he showed me his diamonds, we dickered about the price. I took his stones, he took my money. Then we arrested him."
The suspect--identified as Earl Howard, 29, of Inglewood--was being held in lieu of $10,000 bail in the Fullerton jail, where he was booked on suspicion of grand theft and possession of stolen property. Bankhead declined to say whether the suspect was indeed on probation.
Asked how many plainclothes officers aided in the arrest, Bankhead said, "I think everybody that wasn't working on something else this morning had to get in on this."
Among the allegedly stolen items confiscated were 12 "glittery" stones with the bluish cast of high-quality diamonds, ranging in size from one-quarter carat to one carat, which, Bankhead said, were really made of glass.
'Would Have Fooled Me'
"They looked like high-quality diamonds," he said. "What little bit I know about diamonds, yeah, they would have fooled me."
Even if the stones were not stolen, Bankhead said, selling a piece of glass purported to be a diamond comes under the category of grand theft "by trick or device," though one wag suggested a new charge might be appropriate: "felony stupidity."
Bankhead compared the caper to the age-old "pigeon drop" con game, wherein a cache of money is found and an unsuspecting person is persuaded to withdraw a large amount of cash to redeem the money. The new wrinkle, he said, appears to be random solicitation by telephone.
Asked how the suspect reacted when he was placed under arrest, Bankhead said, "He was rather surprised, to say the least. I think he felt he had such a lucrative pigeon who bought his 12 stones for $2,800 with no argument, he was trying to sell something else. . . .
"Well, you know what they say: There's a sucker born every minute and you may be it."