What began as a simple arrest in Walmart in late February for shoplifting catapulted Aberdeen police down a rabbit hole as they investigated and got convictions on a man wanted for identity theft.
Gabriel K. Palolo, 42, recently sentenced to 84 months imprisonment as a result of a plea deal in Grays Harbor Superior Court, first came to the attention of the Aberdeen Police Department on Feb. 20, said Detective David Tarrence, who investigated the case — his first case as a detective.
Palolo was initially arrested that morning in February for cutting the locking pegs off merchandise in the electronics section, and was detained without incident by Aberdeen patrol officers, Tarrence said. When they checked his ID, officers began taking a closer look.
“He provided a fake ID with someone else’s name,” Tarrence said. “They did a records check and it was coming back with no record.”
Palolo, who had a warrant out of Hawaii for probation violations, has ties in the area, said Detective Sgt. Gary Sexton, who aided in the investigation.
“The sergeant asked a couple questions. The sergeant asked, ‘Did you drive here?’” Tarrence said. “(Palolo) identified a car in the parking lot and said that car was his brother’s.”
Looking into the car, police determined the car had been purchased under a false name, Sexton said.
“That’s when it started coming together that this car had been bought under false pretenses,” Sexton said. “That’s where the good police work starts. Your stuff’s not making sense, it’s not adding up.”
Palolo had purchased the car using an unwitting victim’s identity, Tarrence said. A warrant to search the car turned up more identity-theft related material, including fraudulent IDs and checks, gift cards, information that would allow for more identity theft, and methamphetamine, Tarrence said.
“It appears to me the information he was getting was downloaded from some online dark web database or something, how the information presented to us,” Tarrence said. “The information was handwritten in notebooks, but some was printed.”
With that, the scope of the investigation ballooned, Tarrence said, as they worked with other agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service as they sought to investigate Palolo’s activities, which spread across several states in the region.
“This crossed state lines. There were multiple jurisdictions involved,” Sexton said. “It was a quick learn in how you’re collaborating beyond your sister city. You just start networking. It was far broader than locally that patrol might focus on.”
That collaboration was key to the investigation, Sexton said as they, alongside Detective T.J. Williams, worked to gather more information and crack Palolo’s phone to further look into his activities.
“We had the phone. It was very difficult to get into the phone,” Terrance said. “A lot of the timeline was trying to get into the phone. Eventually we got partially into the phone through the FBI office.”
With that information in hand, Aberdeen police, along with assistance from the FBI, were able to locate a storage area in Olympia, and with a warrant in hand, search the space. Inside, police found a sports car stripped of its component parts and much more material from Palolo’s identity theft efforts.
“This is what we kind of believe to be the hub of his operation based on what we found,” Sexton said.
Working with other agencies which would be beyond the scope of a typical patrol officer has been a real lesson, Tarrence said.
“I had none of those contacts before. Those contacts with the FBI and Secrete Service, that was helpful. They were supportive of what we were doing,” Tarrence said. “It’s a new aspect, learning the cell phone investigations.”
Aberdeen police were able to work with local victims and businesses to get their money back, or, in the case of the automobile, goods returned. Unfortunately, there’s more victims out there than a local police department could handle.
“This started going bigger and way outside the jurisdiction. Even Washington state,” Sexton said. “There’s a lot of victims. And these victims stretch all over.”
For a first at-bat, Tarrence said he’s satisfied with the outcome.
“I think it went well. It was a great experience,” Tarrence said. “We got a conviction. He went to prison. That’s the goal.”
People need to exercise vigilance with their information to avoid becoming the victims of scammers or identity thieves, Sexton said. Shredding or burning sensitive mail and keeping a sharp eye on your accounts can prevent loss of funds or monies, damage to your credit score, and spares you the time it takes to fix things.
”These criminals are just as bad as anyone else. It’s not like it’s a more honorable crime to be an identity thief,” Sexton said. “People need to be more careful watching their stuff. Monitoring credit scores, watching statements, doing all that stuff is crucial for people. It doesn’t have to come like someone stealing mail out of your mailbox. It’s up to each individual to monitor for themselves. And if they have issues, to report them. Get that on record.”
Reporting incidents to law enforcement can help police to make arrests, Tarrence said.
“You never know when your case is involved in some bigger scheme,” Tarrence said.