UPDATE: Local volunteer accused of trafficking stolen gift cards

Police say he led shoplifting ring

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: May 16, 2013, 8:33 PM

 

A Vancouver man involved in multiple volunteer efforts has been accused of knowingly selling nearly $700,000 in fraudulently-obtained gift cards over a three-year period.

Fred. J. Engh, 30, appeared Thursday in Clark County Superior Court on suspicion of first-degree knowingly trafficking stolen property, money laundering, leading organized crime, second-degree possession of stolen property, unlawful possession of a firearm and violation of the Uniform Controlled Substance Act. He will be arraigned on the charges May 30.

Judge Robert Lewis set bail at $200,000.

Engh is a board member of Meals on Wheels, and serves on the steering committee of Vancouver’s Luepke­ Center, a community center for seniors.

He is accused of leading a network of shoplifters, who swiped merchandise from stores and then returned the items for store credit on a gift card. Then, the shoplifters allegedly sold the gift cards to Engh for about 40 percent to 75 percent of face value, according to a probable cause affidavit. He is accused of purchasing the goods, knowing that they were stolen, and selling them from his home on eBay for a profit.

Court documents indicate the organized shoplifting ring operated in Washington, Oregon and Nevada. Clark County sheriff’s detectives began investigating Engh in February after meeting with multiple retailers who provided information that Engh was inquiring into the value of hundreds of gift cards. J.C. Penney, alone, traced Engh’s phone number to balance inquiries into gift cards given to more than 300 people, who made more than one non-receipted return to their store, according to court documents. Lowe’s Home Improvement found a similar connection, the court documents say. During a 103-day period, Engh allegedly inquired into 311 gift cards worth at total of $103,000.

A private investigator, who looked into Engh’s activities, told police that he sold Safeway gift cards to Engh, under the pretense that the gift cards were stolen. Court documents don’t specify who hired the private investigator.

The private investigator said that Engh also connected him with shoplifters who needed a driver, according to the affidavit. Engh said that he had been working with the shoplifters for an “extended period of time,” the court document said. The private investigator preserved a Feb. 9 text message in which Engh allegedly introduced him to a “large-scale booster.” A booster is a street term for a shoplifter who returns stolen merchandise for a gift card.

When a search warrant was served on his home, police said, they also found he had Oxycodone, which wasn’t prescribed to him, and firearms. Engh isn’t allowed to have firearms because he’s a convicted felon.

He pleaded guilty in January 2003 to felony possession of a controlled substance — psylocybin, with the intent to deliver and was sentenced to 42 months in prison. Psylocybin is found in psychedelic mushrooms.

His other criminal history includes fourth-degree domestic violence assault in 2009, malicious mischief in 2010 and 2012, disorderly conduct in 2006, phone harassment in 2002, reckless driving in 2002 and failure to appear at court hearings, according to court records.

Josephine Townsend, Engh’s attorney, said the sale of gift cards was Engh’s business. Court documents indicate the sales were his only source of income for the past two years. Townsend said he reported income of $350,000 to the IRS for 2012 for what he viewed as his legitimate business. She said when he bought gift cards from sellers, he specifically warned them that he wouldn’t buy cards obtained through illegal means. However, there was not a good way to verify whether sellers were telling him the truth, she said.

Engh is one of 20 members of the board for the Portland-based Meals on Wheels. The organization serves hot meals to seniors in the Portland-Vancouver metro area.

He lives in the Wildwood neighborhood.

Engh has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Washington State University, according to the Meals on Wheels website. He also has “worked with a variety of small businesses development and implement(ed) growth and strategic planning,” the website says.

He delivered Meals on Wheels between 2008 and 2011, said organization spokeswoman Julie Piper Finley. The latter year was the first time Meals on Wheels required deliverers to undergo background checks. Engh failed his background check. After that, he was prohibited from delivering meals to seniors but was allowed to continue working under supervision at the Luepke Center Meals on Wheels site, Finley said.

Engh joined the organization’s board in September 2012 as volunteer representative from Luepke, she said. About 5 percent of the board is made up of volunteer representatives; the other 95 percent of representatives come largely from businesses, she said.

Engh was, what she called, an “inactive board member,” in that he has attended only one or two meetings since joining the board.

Unlike volunteers who deliver meals, board members are not required to undergo background checks because they don’t handle money or interact with vulnerable adults, she said. Their primary role is to set policy and approve contracts.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts;http://facebook.com/ColTrendsparis.achen@columbian.com.