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Pickpockets Beware : Ex-LAPD Officer Makes a Fine Pocket Watcher

May 03, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

It's not that their act will get an Oscar, it's that Oscar will get them.

The subject at hand is pickpocketing, and this is the 30th year that Oscar O'Lear of Arleta has been frustrating the practitioners.

"The cons talk about (O'Lear) at San Quentin--they even describe (him)," lamented one pickpocket who had been nabbed. "They warned us to stay away from Hollywood Park, because they said that is where O'Lear is on the prowl."

An officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for 28 years, security adviser for the Olympics, counselor to numerous cities for World Series games, fairs and conventions, and now in his sixth season with Hollywood Park, O'Lear has refined his reverse art of foiling dips, spears, shots and cannons, as the pickpocket genre is known.

An Old Acquaintance

If you want stories, O'Lear has them. A few years after retiring from the LAPD, he ran into an old acquaintance. "His name was Timothy, he was a multiple offender, and the last time I had seen him, a judge had allowed him a couple weeks to get his affairs in order before going back to prison--but with one provision: He had to wear mittens in public so that only his thumbs could move separately.

"But Timothy instead skipped town. Several months later I spotted him downtown, a jacket over his arm, beginning to move toward a woman's purse. As I arrested him, I asked: 'Where's your mittens?' "

There's more. Three years later, now part of the security system at the Inglewood track, O'Lear was standing near the walking ring, a $5 bill and parimutuel ticket in the left pocket of his shirt.

Took Bill on Second Try

"I could see a woman walk past and glance into my pocket," he recalled. "I didn't even turn my head, because I knew she would come back. While I was pretending to be reading the Daily Racing Form, she made a try, but missed the pocket. On her second try, she got the $5 bill. I grabbed her, and my partner grabbed the friend who was with her.

"I didn't know who she was, but when we got inside, she made a phone call to her father. She handed the phone to me, and said he wanted to speak to me. It was none other than Timothy.

" 'Oscar, did she pick your pocket?' " he asked me.

"When I replied that she had, he said: 'I warned her not to operate at Hollywood Park. I told her Oscar would catch her.' "

Stories such as these make the rounds of the pros, undoubtedly one of the reasons there were only three complaints of pickpocketing during the fall meet.

There are other reasons why sports facilities worldwide have sought his specialized service:

-- During the first World Series at Dodger Stadium, in 1963, he caught five pickpockets, working the food lines and souvenir stands.

-- While Anaheim Stadium was being built, he trained three of that city's officers in detection and arrest of pickpockets.

-- Before the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and the 1976 Games in Montreal, officials came here to seek his advice.

-- Also, over the years, he has been sought out by cities hosting other sports attractions, fairs and conventions.

"You look at the eyes," the 69-year-old O'Lear explained, carrying a Form and strolling along like any other patron enjoying a day at the track. "If they are sort of dull, the man or woman is immersed in (private and legitimate) thought. . . . If the eyes are bright and the head is constantly turning, the situation is more like a snake looking for its prey."

It is a typical problem at any sports event, or anywhere that crowds congregate.

"In a store, the pickpocket will select an item, but not really look at it," he said. "His eyes will instead be on a customer."

O'Lear doesn't have a sixth sense, but rather what he calls a "grift sense"--the ability to detect such activity. "Sometimes you can tell by the way he carries himself, in a glide, something like a cat. He'll try to get in the rhythm of the man or woman he is following, so as not to accidentally jostle before he wants to strike."

And what occasionally ensues--regardless of the location--is almost comical. The mark is being stalked by the dip, who is being tailed by O'Lear, who is being followed by his partner.

"Sometimes this goes on for hours," said his track partner, who requested anonymity.

It sounds like a great job, being at the track every day. Problem is O'Lear and his partner never get to watch a race. As the fans in the upper grandstand were focused on the running, the two partners were walking rapidly behind the seats, keeping their eyes on the purses which many of the women appeared to have forgotten.

A few minutes later, the attention of the security officers returned to the cashier windows. "After a fan cashes a ticket, he is sometimes in another world," the partner said, observing a winner happily counting his currency. "You shouldn't flash cash anywhere in public."

Walking 20 Miles

O'Lear and his partner walk--always separately--about 20 miles during the nearly five hours they're on the job.

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