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Stolen Cellphones, Drug Tent and Shrimp Fraud Uncovered In Operation at 12th and Jackson

Early Thursday morning, Seattle police raided a Vietnamese restaurant and a tent in the woods in the International District, and arrested 25 suspects as part of a three-month operation around 12th Avenue and S. Jackson Street, which led police to bust stolen cellphone and computer traffickers and a woman selling illegally purchased shrimp out of a van.

In January, East Precinct’s Captain asked the SPD’s Major Crimes Task Force for help in addressing open-air drug dealing around the busy intersection.

“My officers were seeing car prowls and drug deals out there, and growing unrest in the community,” says East Precinct Captain Pierre Davis. “Once officers started putting these cases together, one arrest led to another.”

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When the MCTF began looking into what was happening at 12th and Jackson, Detective Todd Jakobsen says “informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards.

The first break in Operation Rock and Hock came after a burglar was busted in Downtown Seattle tipped police that a non-descript electronics store on Jackson Street—One-Stop Wireless, which was previously raided by the MCTF in 2009 for trafficking stolen cellphones and computers—was back in business.

“Before One-Stop opened up their doors at 10 o’clock every morning,” Det. Jakobsen says, “there would be a line of people looking to sell iPhones and iPads they had stolen the night before.”

MCTF detectives served a warrant at One-Stop on January 14th, and seized 804 suspected stolen computers, iPods, and cellular phones, many of which were reported stolen. MCTF detectives also seized more than $226,000 in cash from the business.

While working the One-Stop case, detectives also began a “buy-and-slide” drug sting around 12th and Jackson. Undercover officers and informants began buying drugs—primarily crack cocaine—around the clock in the neighborhood. But instead of busting dealers after each sale—referred to as a “buy bust” operation—the MCTF identified more than two-dozen dealers, and began building cases against the suspects.

“In a buy-and-bust you devote a lot of manpower to making one or two arrests, and then everyone disappears,” Det. Jakobsen says. “With a buy-and-slide, we identified and built rock solid cases on 26 drug dealers. We think we have the bulk of the people selling drugs in the area.”

The drug investigation also led detectives to a tent in the woods under I-5 near 8th Ave S. and S. Jackson St. Police learned the tent was being used by suppliers to traffic several ounces of crack cocaine every day in the neighborhood around 12th. This tent was also recently the site of at least one reported shooting.

Detectives also noticed a number of drug dealers in the neighborhood frequenting the Thanh Tam Restaurant. One police informant told detectives they had purchased drugs from the restaurant’s owners more than 100 times.  When detectives later served a warrant at the Thanh Tam restaurant on March 26, they recovered $17,000 and 16 grams of cocaine at the business.

Already busy investigating the drug and stolen cell phone shop operations in the neighborhood, the MCTF received another request for assistance, this time from the US Department of Agriculture, which was investigating Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) fraud around 12th and Jackson.

Once the MCTF began investigating with the USDA, they found there were two fraud schemes in play in the neighborhood:

Middlemen were recruiting people off the street to sell their EBT benefits to clerks at the Minh Tam Market. The clerks paid undercover officers and informants 50 cents on the dollar for their card benefits, sometimes offering up crack cocaine in lieu of cash. After investigating Minh Tam, MCTF served warrants at the business on and recovered more than $424,000 in cash.

Cash recovered during Operation Rock and Hock

Cash recovered during Operation Rock and Hock

MCTF detectives also learned of a woman, who was well known around 12th and Jackson for buying EBT cards off the street. After making contact with the woman and offering to sell her EBT cards, the woman took undercover officers to several grocery stores near 12th and Jackson—including Lam’s Seafood Market and Viet Wah—where she used the undercovers’ EBT cards to buy cartfuls of meat, seafood and large bags of rice, which she loaded into her minivan. Detectives also noticed that store employees helped the woman skirt EBT regulations, allowing her to use multiple cards at a time, and breaking up large purchases of food to avoid raising any flags in the EBT system.

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Detectives continued investigating the woman and, at one point during their case, followed her in the middle of the night as she pulled her van into an alleyway, and sold off $1,000 worth of frozen shrimp she had just purchased through EBT fraud. When detectives later arrested he, the woman had approximately twenty 50 pounds bags of rice in her van. “Her minivan was weighed down so much it was sitting 3 inches off the ground,” Det. Jakobsen says. Police also served a warrant on her home, where they seized $3,000 in cash.

The woman and suspects associated with the Minh Tam Market are now facing fraud charges as a result of the operation. Officials from USDA and the Department Social and Health Services are also investigating the businesses involved in the EBT card schemes, and the businesses could lose their ability to accept EBT card payments.

Police are working to track down and arrest all of the suspects identified during Operation Rock and Hock. As of this afternoon, police had arrested 25 of the suspects.

“We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street. Starting tomorrow we are then sending in ‘Clean Scapes’ to clean up graffiti and debris, and the Seattle Health department, City Licensing, King County Metro Police, SPD Traffic as well as area emphasis by the East Precinct Patrol, Bike, Foot Patrol, CPT and ACT teams. We’re going to take that area back for the community,” Det. Jakobsen says.

“This operation will be good for the International District community,” says East Precinct’s Captain Davis. “We’re not just doing enforcement in the neighborhood, we’re looking at the environment as well. The community is a big part of this.”