Despite the implied transience of the mobile home lifestyle, Trailer Haven has a look of permanence about it. Among the cypress trees and the knee-high wooden fences separating one leafy lot from the next, residents of the San Leandro trailer park have tricked out their lots with all the trappings of home: windmills and goofy lawn signs and statuary painted a not-quite-convincing shade of gold. But not lot #190. No more than an asphalt parking space on the outer edge of the camp next to the pay phone and the exit gate, lot #190 is meant for people who don't plan to stick around for long.
Staking out the park on June 12, 2002, Brian Odell and Matt O'Brien were worried that the three inhabitants of that lot were about to leave town in a hurry. Both men work as investigators for Home Depot, the nation's second-largest retail chain. They believed that the people whose trailer was parked on lot #190 were engineering a massive bar-code scam that had defrauded their company of hundreds of thousands of dollars. For weeks, Home Depot's loss-prevention department had been tracking the trio's movements as they refunded their way through Texas, Arizona, and then California. By the time they'd swept through the Bay Area, they'd hit stores in Pittsburg, Concord, San Ramon, and Pleasanton. They'd been to El Cerrito, Emeryville, Union City, and Milpitas. They'd been as far north as Sacramento and as far south as Salinas.
But until now, Home Depot's investigators had always been at least a day behind the three. They'd pored over in-store surveillance tape of a large, balding, middle-aged man, later identified as John Patrick Hay, who apparently entered the store with pre-cut bar-code stickers, photocopied en masse at a copy shop. He affixed them over the existing bar codes on the items he wished to buy, selecting the same products every time: a kitchen faucet retailing at $169, which he would relabel with a sticker for a lower-end model worth only $39. He did the same with an outdoor lighting kit worth $249, which he would cover with the bar codes for a cheaper model worth $55. The sales for the more expensive items would then be rung up at the lower price. Later the same day, the group would show up at a neighboring Home Depot and a second graying, middle-aged man later identified as Anthony Davenport would peel off the homemade sticker, then return the items for their original prices. With each exchange, he would pocket the difference between the two grades of home fixture. Since he usually exchanged several faucets and light kits at a time, each visit to the refund desk yielded between $1,000 and $1,500. When asked for identification, the men often presented English or Irish passports; later investigation would reveal that they had more than a dozen of these, each with a different serial number.
Davenport's wife, Linda Broderick, was the third member of the group. Although she had only been captured once on a Home Depot camera, the investigators believed that her name was on the multiple bank accounts into which the trio's profits were funneled. As part of the stakeout, O'Brien had trailed Broderick and Davenport to a San Leandro Bank of America, where Broderick transferred a $300,000 cashier's check to her account with the Bank of Ireland. Although the trio still had several days left on their rent at Trailer Haven, the banking transaction seemed like a sure sign that they were planning to split.
After weeks of surveillance, the Home Depot security officers knew they were onto something big, but they didn't quite know how big. They didn't know that the events of that day would unleash a bizarre yearlong investigation that will culminate in Oakland next week with the beginning of the sentencing process for Davenport, Hay, and Broderick on federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They didn't know that the trio's trail would lead through at least 24 states, and that the investigation's nationwide scope would draw in the FBI and the US Attorney's Office. They didn't know that the dent the three managed to make in Home Depot's pocketbook, originally estimated at $400,000, would soar toward an estimated $1 million. They didn't know that the scam artists' methodology would turn into a case study on how to beat the bar-code system with nothing more than a Xerox machine and a polite insistence that the customer is always right. And they didn't know that the three would be linked to the Irish Travelers, a shadowy ethnic subculture with a reputation among law enforcement officials for conducting home improvement and shoplifting scams. All they knew was that their suspects were in sight, and that they were getting away.
Nobody knows exactly when Davenport and Hay began switching bar codes, but by the summer of 2002 the drifters had created a well-honed system. "This is what they did for a living," says Cathy Pickard, the fraud detective who conducted the San Leandro Police Department's investigation. "They'd wake up in the morning, get in the car, and that was their job."
Their method was simple: they kept moving, never staying in one area for more than a few weeks. One guy would buy and another guy would return, making them less likely to be recognized. To a clerk not intimately familiar with the products in question, the packaging for the low-end and high-end faucets and light kits looked strikingly similar. The two men said they were contractors refurbishing hotels across the country who went to Home Depot to return unused parts. Both men looked unassuming and acted pleasantly; the only thing slightly odd about them was that they frequently used passports instead of driver's licenses when asked for identification. (Both Davenport and Broderick are Irish nationals; Hay is from Scotland.)
If a store employee demanded a receipt, Davenport would take out a folder containing hundreds of old receipts and haplessly thumb through them as though looking for the right one. Usually, the clerk would lose interest and just give him the refund. If anyone questioned either man too closely, they'd just walk away. After all, there was always another Home Depot just down the road. They'd conducted hundreds of returns, sometimes hitting as many as six stores a day, before Home Depot noticed something was amiss. "If you look at it in the big scale you'd go, 'How could you not have known?'" Pickard says. "But when you look at it on the day-to-day level, it's brilliant."
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