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Joining forces against Northern Liberties' one-man crime storm

There it was. The picture of Laguna Beach that Alan Horowitz snapped while on vacation, the turquoise water staring at him from the screen of his stolen GPS.

In Philadelphia, Alan Horowitz stands in front of the parking garage at 8th and Arch streets where his car was broken into. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
In Philadelphia, Alan Horowitz stands in front of the parking garage at 8th and Arch streets where his car was broken into. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

There it was. The picture of Laguna Beach that Alan Horowitz snapped while on vacation, the turquoise water staring at him from the screen of his stolen GPS.

Police had tracked the device to the Kensington pawnshop where Horowitz now stood, with an officer by his side, flipping through other beachy snapshots of him hugging his girlfriend.

The GPS had been stolen three weeks earlier. That Friday in March, after working 12 hours, Horowitz returned to a Center City garage to find the passenger-side window of his car shattered, Garmin GPS gone, and weekend travel plans dashed.

Records indicate the GPS was sold to the pawnshop by a Julio Steven Jackson for $35, three hours after Horowitz parked his car. It wasn't Jackson's first sale there, and it would not be his last. Over two weeks, receipts show, Jackson sold seven Garmin GPS devices, all to the same pawnshop.

"Are you kidding me?" Horowitz remembered telling Officer Joseph Ferrero during their ride to the pawnshop. There was more. Deeper digging by police found that Jackson had unloaded 18 devices in 24 days, mostly to the same welcoming pawnshop.

Jackson, 46, now sits in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, formerly Holmesburg, convicted in September of receiving stolen property. In separate cases, he awaits trial on three charges of theft from a motor vehicle.

In neighborhoods within the Sixth and Ninth Police Districts, which include Center City, Fairmount, Washington Square West, Old City, and Northern Liberties, Jackson is considered a one-man crime tsunami.

"He's a career criminal. That's what he does for living, in my opinion," said Capt. Brian Korn of the Sixth District, where car break-ins have become a persistent problem, up 35 percent from last year. "And when he's in custody, the numbers tend to go down. When he's not, they go up."

Police say Northern Liberties, which runs from Girard Avenue to Spring Garden Street and Seventh to Front Streets, has been particularly hard hit.

In its storied history, Northern Liberties has gone from blue-collar boomtown of breweries and factories to wasteland of drugs and violence to gentrification-in-progress.

"The neighborhood has added population at a dizzying pace," said Matt Ruben, 41, who has lived there for 10 years and is president of the neighbors association.

"But there are areas where there's just nothing, just abandoned buildings and vacant lots. It may be that crime continues because the redevelopment is not complete."

The crime wave has come, several say, in home invasions, robberies, and especially car break-ins.

Checking pawn slips

Back in April, Officer James Coughlin of the 26th District was flipping through pawn receipts, hundreds of them, searching for stolen goods.

A name stood out: Julio Jackson.

It appeared on seven slips over a stretch of two weeks - all for Garmins, all sold to the same pawnshop.

"Obviously, he wasn't selling his own," said Coughlin, 33.

Cops often check pawn slips to track thefts, and Coughlin counted himself lucky. "If he was bouncing from pawnshop to pawnshop, I would never have caught him."

The pawnshop, Advanced Money Loan, sits under the El at Front and Jasper Streets, near one of the city's "worst drug corners," Coughlin said.

The yellow awning reads "Casa de empeño," Spanish for "pawn house." Congas and guitars decorate the window. On a recent morning, a group of young men in hooded sweatshirts and ball caps worked the notorious corner.

"We have regular folks with regular stuff," said the pawnshop's manager, Kenny Az. "People are desperate."

Az conceded that "sometimes, items come from questionable sources." His job, he said, is to make sure proper procedure is followed, including requiring a photo ID from the seller and recording for police the serial number on items.

Coughlin, on the force almost 11 years, finds the procedure flimsy at best.

"The pawnshop knows, if the guy is bringing 18 GPS systems in there, they have to be stolen," Coughlin said. "But as long as he does his due diligence, there's no penalty. I think it's a shame. As long as these pawnshops don't have anything to lose, why wouldn't they buy everything?"

Jackson pocketed about $20 for the cheap models, police said, and $30 for the more expensive ones.

Coughlin checked Jackson's record. He found several theft-related arrests in the Sixth District and called Korn. "Oh, yeah," Korn told him, "we know him very well."

On April 14, Coughlin and two Sixth District police officers visited Advanced Money Loan and turned on six Garmins. They tracked down two of the rightful owners - Horowitz and Joe Docimo - through contact information found in the units.

Receipts show Jackson sold Docimo's GPS five hours after the owner parked his SUV in Center City around 7:30 a.m. March 30, four days after Jackson had sold Horowitz's GPS.

To get his device back, Horowitz had to pay Advanced Money Loan $35, a standard practice that irks crime victims.

"Not only am I out of pocket at the cost of having to replace my car window," said Horowitz, a 61-year-old lawyer who lives in Bucks County, but "I have to repurchase an item that's mine in the first place. That's unfair. There is something fundamentally wrong with such a system."

Coughlin agreed. "It stinks for the complainant. They have to basically buy their GPS twice."

In May, police arrested Jackson in Northern Liberties. The longtime offender faced numerous charges involving car break-ins.

"He had a steady flow of income there for a while," Korn said. "It's a good thing he's in custody. Some people in that area are getting a break."

History of petty crimes

Aside from the stack of court files, little is known about Jackson or what fueled his petty crimes. Through a prison spokesman, he declined a request for an interview.

Court records describe him as a man of slender build, 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. He is divorced and has no children. His educational background includes some college. Between the ages of 28 and 46, he ping-ponged through the criminal-justice system.

From 1992 to 2010, Jackson walked into county jail 18 times, mostly on misdemeanor theft convictions, and received sentences ranging from three to 23 months. In at least two cases, he received stiffer sentences, from two to five years in state prison.

"This office convicted him several times, and he's done his time," said Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the district attorney. "There's really not much more we can do."

Prison records show that Jackson was released early on several occasions, or referred to a program for offenders.

Until several months ago, he worked for Philadelphia Fight, an AIDS services organization in Center City. According to the executive director, he volunteered for about a year and received a small stipend. At some point, he worked at a Burger King in Center City, according to a former landlord.

The last time Jackson was arrested, he told police he lived at a homeless shelter in Center City. Before that, he had lived with his girlfriend in a rowhouse on the 1900 block of Nicholas Street, according to public records and the landlord.

In his most recent encounters with the criminal-justice system, Jackson was arrested in February, for the 42d time, on two counts of theft from a motor vehicle in Northern Liberties. In April, he was arrested for possession of an instrument of crime - a spark plug tied to a string that police said he used to shatter car windows. He was arrested again in May for theft from a motor vehicle. In all of those cases, Jackson was released on bail.

"It makes me glad I don't keep a GPS in my car," Coughlin said. "It's the way the system works."

Jackson was arrested again May 15 for two counts of receiving stolen property, the two GPSs, and has remained in custody.

In August, he was found guilty of the spark-plug charge and sentenced to 111/2 to 23 months. In September, he was also found guilty of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to six to 12 months.

Vince Regan, the assistant district attorney handling Jackson's cases in the repeat-offenders unit, explained that three misdemeanors equal a felony. But the math is not that simple, Regan said. If Jackson had two previous convictions for theft from a motor vehicle within five years, any new charge for the same crime would constitute a felony. In that case, Jackson would face 31/2 to 7 years in prison.

But Jackson's last such conviction was in 2004 - six years ago. So the three open cases will be handled as misdemeanors.

"Sentencing doesn't always go the way we would like," Korn said. "That's why we asked the community to get involved in this particular instance. That people in this area come together and go to court and ask for a long sentence, and, if they get it, will send a message."

Fed-up residents

For Jackson's trial next week more than 60 fed-up residents in Northern Liberties wrote letters to the judge, expressing the annoyance, cost, and impact of repeat offenders like Jackson.

"Theft from motor vehicles is much more than a financial burden," Regan, the prosecutor, said. "It affects people's sense of safety. It affects people's sense of community. It actually causes people to question whether they want to live in Philadelphia."

In the year Rob Terry, 30, has lived in Northern Liberties, his car has been broken into three times. The first time, someone made off with his iPod. The second time, a vandal smashed a window. On the third, someone ripped out his stereo. "At first, we would call the cops," said Terry, who is married and has an infant son. "But you can only call the cops so many times."

The neighborhood Town Watch, which Terry joined out of frustration, was revived earlier this year and recently added a second night to its patrol. The group has worked with security-camera companies, posted fliers on crime awareness, and built an extensive e-mail network. Members have attended court hearings and spoken out in cases such as Jackson's.

"I'm not a person who believes the criminal-justice system is a revolving door," said Ruben, a college professor, who helped organize the letter-writing campaign. "But someone is arrested 45 times? Something is wrong."