Trailers Are for Travelers 

What were million-dollar Irish scam artists doing living in this trailer park?

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Then in late 2001, Home Depot stopped offering cash refunds without a receipt, instead reimbursing customers with gift cards. For Hay and Davenport, this had a downside: the cards weren't money. But there was a benefit, too: ID wasn't scrutinized very closely when a customer redeemed a gift card. So although sometimes the men simply used these gift cards to fund the next purchase, they often converted them back into cash by selling the cards at a discount to a handful of steady customers. Each card was usually worth around $1,200.

Just about everyone who has touched the Home Depot case agrees on two things: that the bar-code switching scheme was simple but clever, and that it might have gone on indefinitely if it hadn't been for Dennis Dees and his apparent love of cabinetry.

Dees, a Mesquite, Texas man in the process of building a new house, proved to be one of the scammers' best clients. After responding to a newspaper ad, he bought roughly $100,000 worth of cards for seventy cents on the dollar. But Dees wasn't canny enough to spend the cards in small quantities over a long period of time. Instead, he inadvertently set in motion Home Depot's internal investigation last year when he walked into his local store for a set of kitchen cabinets and plunked down more than $20,000 worth of gift cards that had originated in five different states. As Pickard puts it drily: "That's a lot of birthday presents."

The unusual transaction caught the eye of Darren Jackson, the Home Depot loss-prevention investigator for the retailer's southwest Texas region. Jackson says that after tracking the gift cards back to Davenport and Hay, then analyzing their transactions, he quickly realized that the two men were pulling a bar-code switch, and had cleverly chosen to purchase similar-looking home fixtures that had a substantial price differential between the high- and low-end versions. "What would be the value of making ten dollars on an item?" he asks philosophically. "It's not even worth your time." At that point, Home Depot was only able to track the group through thirteen states, but it was clear that they'd covered plenty of ground. Jackson found proof that they'd been doing refunds all the way from Georgia to California, and from as far north as Ohio down to the Gulf States.

Now the challenge was to catch up with them. Realizing that the group was moving up the California coast, Jackson began working with Odell, his East Bay counterpart, and the two put out the word to Bay Area stores. "I was on the phone every day with the stores, telling them the scenario: 'This is what the guy looks like, this is what he's returning, did he have a passport?'" Jackson recalls. He had Bay Area stores fax him their refund slips to check if the trio already had passed through; meanwhile, Odell began deactivating the gift cards that he knew had already been issued to them. Odell admits that this move may have tipped his hand to the people he was pursuing. "They were realizing those last couple of days that something was going on," he remembers. "And then they were getting refused. They were getting questioned a little more." At one point, when a suspicious manager at the Sunnyvale Home Depot demanded receipts, they simply left the store. But still nobody had managed to catch them in action or figure out where they were headed next.

Then the agents got a lucky break. A shoplifting prevention agent in the Milpitas store recognized Davenport from one of the surveillance photos that the security officers had sent to Bay Area stores. Three years earlier, he'd arrested Davenport at a San Mateo Home Depot. Davenport's arrest report from that incident showed a history of petty theft, and listed his address as Trailer Haven. And in another stroke of luck, when Odell called the trailer park to see if anyone matching Davenport's description was staying there, it turned out that he was back, albeit under his frequently employed pseudonym, "Andrew Baguley." Better yet, as trailer park manager Robert Granada says, Davenport hadn't exactly been subtle about his ties to Home Depot. He had unsuccessfully offered to sell Granada and one of his neighbors thousands of dollars worth of the store's gift cards. "He had $5,000 worth of credit on it, and he said he'd give it to me for $3,500," he remembers. "That didn't hit me right. Nobody will give you something for nothing."

But although the Home Depot agents were certain they had the right guys, Odell was having trouble getting law enforcement interested. The FBI's white-collar-crime unit basically told him to call when he had a suspect ready to interview. The San Leandro Police Department initially resisted getting involved because there was no evidence that the trio had conducted any crimes in its city. Plus, San Leandro has a relatively small police force -- its fraud department employs only two detectives -- and the officers were well aware of the cascade of paperwork the case would require. "To tell the truth," Pickard says, "when Brian Odell came into the front counter we were praying they would do this in Hayward."

So imagine this: Odell and O'Brien are camped inside the manager's office at Trailer Haven, watching the action unfold from behind its tinted windows. They have no badges and no guns. And they have just watched their number-one suspect export $300,000 worth of what they believe to be their company's money out of the country.

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