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Bounty hunting

Buyer says police auction item should be his


Of the 135,000 pieces of evidence that Colorado Springs police disposed of in 2005, Michael Helms says one technological treasure brimming with prospect should have been his.

Just months after Helms bought a high-powered global-positioning system in a Colorado Springs police auction last summer, police came and took it back, despite their advertisement of "all sales final."

"I was stunned," Helms says.

The situation seems to turn on its head the scandal surrounding the improper purge of scores of items from the police evidence room, Helms says.

Bidding wars

In April 2005, Steven Aslagson, of Dwire Earthmoving & Excavating, reported the GPS system he bought for his bulldozer drivers had been stolen.

The GPS turned up in police hands just hours after Aslagson's report. Officers had busted a pair of suspected thieves whose pickup truck contained some 160 stolen items, says Colorado Springs police Lt. Rafael Cintron.

The officers worked for days to match the stolen goods with the owners, Cintron says. Yet the GPS was never connected to Aslagson because one of the serial numbers he provided was inaccurate.

Because an owner was not identified, the GPS was sent to an auction, held on July 9, 2005, in the tiny town of Yoder, just east of the Springs.

That's where Helms spotted it.

Helms paid just $20 for the system, but he soon learned it was worth roughly $20,000. After placing the item for sale on eBay in September, he watched happily as bids for thousands upon thousands of dollars rolled in.

Aslagson just happened to be scanning eBay as well, and tipped off police that the GPS he'd reported stolen was up for sale.

"When I saw it on eBay, I knew that was it," he says. "We're about the only company in the entire state that uses that system."

Helms was entertaining a $7,800 bid when two detectives packing guns and a search warrant appeared on his porch, accusing him of stealing the GPS.

Helms, a Colorado Springs Utilities worker, avoided arrest by producing an auction receipt for the gizmo.

But police still considered the GPS to be stolen and took it from Helms. "The item didn't belong to Mr. Helms," Cintron says.

But Helms disagrees.

"I legally purchased it," he says. "So I believe I am the owner."

The city's compromise

In January, Helms appeared in small claims court to fight for the value of the GPS. But the case was dismissed because he filed his claim against the police, instead of the city.

Days later, he received a letter from John E. Davis, the city's senior claim adjuster, offering a deal.

"Subject to our findings, we felt that it would be in the best interests of both parties to extend an offer of $20 to you," Davis wrote. "This reflects a strict compromise, which is the amount you paid for the equipment at auction, and is not an admission of negligence."

The letter also indicated Helms might want to pursue the suspects, Larry Silva and Darla Partida, for restitution. The two had been charged with a handful of theft-related felonies and misdemeanors.

"Can you believe that? Of course, I turned the offers down," Helms says. He adds, however, that his case appears dead because he can't find an attorney willing to take a gamble.

"There's a lesson here," Helms says. "Never trust a police auction."

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