When a man wanted in a murder case led authorities on a chase across the southern United States more than a year ago, he left a cyber trail through San Antonio.
Authorities spent days searching for Richard Derek Hoffpauir, the man eventually convicted of killing a 21-year-old hairdresser from Vidor, a town of about 11,000 in Orange County near the Louisiana border.
Before snatching Christy Marie Goodman from her house in spring 2003, authorities say, Hoffpauir burglarized a neighboring house.
They linked a 2.8-carat diamond ring stolen from the house and pawned in San Antonio to Hoffpauir using the Law Enforcement Automated Database Search – a national, Web-based catalog of pawned items known as l.e.a.d.s.online and located at www.leadsonline.com.
“We got a call from an Orange County sheriff’s officer that thought a murderer might be on his way to San Antonio,” San Antonio police Capt. Harry Griffin recalled.
Investigators began scouring pawn records for evidence Hoffpauir had been in the area.
“We checked our old system and got nothing,” Griffin said. “But with this system – boom – we got a hit.”
At the time, the San Antonio Police Department was testing l.e.a.d.s.online. The department began its $31,500-a-year contract for the catalog Jan. 1.
More than 300 law enforcement agencies nationwide subscribe to the service for an annual fee based on the number of officers and pawnshops in the area.
The database initially was designed to help agencies recover stolen property, but since its inception in 2000 it has been used to solve a number of violent crimes, including Goodman’s killing.
Pawnshops and secondhand stores send their transaction records – which they are legally required to submit to law en-forcement agencies – to the database. Authorities search records for items potentially linked to investigations.
“Before, detectives had to drive around and pick up records from all the pawnshops. It was tedious,” said Dave Finley, president and CEO of l.e.a.d.s.online.
“People don’t get into police work to pick up pawn tickets,” he said.
“People want to solve crimes, return property and catch the bad guys. With this system, they have more time to do the job they entered law enforcement to do.”
Records are updated daily, and searches take seconds.
Before, detectives and civilian volunteers would have to type information from paper pawn tickets into a police com-puter system designed only to track items pawned in San Antonio.
“It was very time-consuming and took a lot of manpower,” said Robert Sholund, an SAPD property crimes detective.
Investigators would have to wait 25 to 40 days for pawned items to appear in the electronic database. “After that long, the trail goes cold,” Sholund said.
“The quicker a police officer can get access to information, the better job he can do and the better his chances are of recovering property,” Griffin said.
In San Antonio, less than 5 percent of the more than $113 million worth of items stolen in 2003 was recovered, Griffin said, explaining that 92 percent of all offenses in the city are property crimes such as burglaries, robberies and thefts.
“Most people write off stolen property, and a lot are surprised if they get their items back,” Sholund said.
So far this year, Sholund, one of 65 San Antonio detectives with access to l.e.a.d.s.online, has recovered nearly $5,500 worth of stolen property through the system.
The database, which has a catalog of more than 50 million pawned items from 2,000 shops in 18 states, has helped in-vestigators from across the country locate stolen items pawned in other cities and states, something more difficult with previous search systems because of geographical constraints.
Authorities have tracked video games stolen from southeastern Arkansas to Temple. A weapon used in a crime in west-ern Oregon turned up at a pawnshop in Tulsa, Okla. And authorities recovered musical equipment stolen from there in Mobile, Ala.
About 60 percent of San Antonio’s nearly 100 pawnshops now send data to the system, but the local pawnbrokers asso-ciation expects pawn records for all area stores to be online by midsummer.
Those records can be crucial in verifying suspects’ alibis, developing timelines and locating key people in an investiga-tion.
In Hoffpauir’s case, the records helped authorities confirm he stole the ring, part of securing the capital murder convic-tion that led to a life sentence in prison.
After San Antonio police found the ring he pawned, Hoffpauir was involved in a shooting in rural Arkansas. The victim of that Saline County shooting survived; Hoffpauir was shot in the buttocks, eventually arrested and convicted of killing Goodman in Vidor.
Hoffpauir committed suicide in a Texas prison last March.