Last month, as Andrew Cunanan was cutting a violent swath across the United States, the Los Angeles Police Department's pawnshop detail received an unusual heads-up from federal law enforcement authorities.
The L.A. detectives were told to keep on the lookout for any signs that Cunanan might try to pawn items for money that could sustain him while he remained on the lam.
The location turned out not to be right, but the warning was dead on. Cunanan showed up at a Miami-area pawnshop where, after signing his name and leaving a thumbprint, he received a loan in exchange for a gold coin that had been stolen from slain Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin.
Sadly, Miami police did not discover the transaction--a notice of which had been sent to them, as per pawnshop regulations--in time to prevent the killer from taking the life of famed fashion designer Gianni Versace.
Despite criticism leveled at Miami police for the apparent oversight, Los Angeles Police Department Det. Dave Anderson was sympathetic.
As head of the LAPD's pawnshop detail for the past nine months, Anderson has learned first-hand how difficult it is to keep track of transaction reports.
The detail, with a staff of eight inspectors, is responsible for monitoring the activities of 117 pawnshops in the city, including 43 in the San Fernando Valley.
These shops generate about 3,000-4,000 transaction forms each business day.
It's no surprise that some of the goods making their way into these pawnshops are hot.
Sometimes, even when it's obvious, the pawnshop owner is willing to look the other way.
"The ones we have problems with are new," Anderson said.
"They're often hurting for money and sometimes try to cut corners."
But many pawnshop owners will notify police immediately if they suspect goods offered are tainted.
Over the years, inspectors have recovered from pawnshops several stolen World Series rings, a $100,000 powerboat and a Stradivarius violin, Anderson said.
So far this year, detectives have made 2,612 inspections, during which they placed 351 holds on suspicious items.
They have recovered $750,000 worth of stolen property, which is $50,000 more than in all of 1996.
Big-ticket goods with serial numbers are usually recoverable, the detective said, because pawnshop operators are required by state law to note the numbers on a form that also includes the loan recipient's permanent address, driver's license number and thumbprint.
Rare items with distinguishing markings also stand a good chance of being returned to the proper owner if pawned because they can be easily spotted by officers.
It's the smaller items, including jewelry and coins, that present a bigger problem.
Det. Reggie Jackson, who works the pawnshop detail, said the Police Commission is considering a proposed computer database for the division that will allow the department to track valuables even if they don't have serial numbers.
Currently, the paperwork for these items that arrive at the LAPD are not even filed because of budgetary constraints.
Computerized tracking would make a huge difference in finding stolen property, Jackson said.
"It would do a lot," he said, "to help return people's property and heirlooms before it gets into that Never-Never Land where you will never track it."