By Bob Jackson
Authorities said the crowd even included one of the men who was sentenced in the theft ring.
BOARDMAN – Chris Roman knew there would be a crowd at the Western Reserve Auction Center on Saturday morning.
After all, most of the items to be sold at auction that day were recovered from a highly publicized theft ring that once operated in the Mahoning Valley but was broken up by authorities about two years ago. The intrigue from that alone would surely draw some curious onlookers to the auction, he thought.
But what he saw when he stood atop the auctioneer’s stand simply blew him away.
“This had to be one of the largest auctions that this area, if not the entire state of Ohio, has seen in a long, long time,” said Roman, of George Roman Auctioneers. “The turnout was way beyond what I expected.”
He estimated that nearly 3,000 people crowded onto the grounds of the auction center on Western Reserve Road, and many of them came intending to buy, not just look, as more than 500 people were registered to bid.
“You just don’t see that many people coming out to bid like that. Generally, if you get 200 people registered to bid, that’s a big auction,” Roman said. “This was amazing.”
Before the auction, Roman said he expected the 75 items for sale to generate between $12,000 and $20,000, but that number also was surpassed.
“All I can say is that it exceeded our expectations,” Roman said after the auction. “It went very, very well.”
He did not have final figures available.
Most of the items up for auction had been confiscated by the Ohio Organized Crime Commission Task Force, which has units in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
“We went to great lengths to try to find the owners of these items so they could be returned,” said Andy Bodzak, task force director. “These items are only about one-fourth of everything that we confiscated. The rest was returned to the owners or to their insurance companies.”
The big-ticket item of the day was a 7-by-12-foot dump trailer that was sold for $4,700, Roman said.
Other items sold included a five-person hot tub that fetched $950.
There were also lawn tractors, restaurant equipment, exercise equipment, household furnishings, power tools, jewelry and a go-kart, among other things.
John Vlahos of Warren paid $325 apiece for two restaurant quality food-prep machines, which he intends to use for his gyro sandwich concession stand business.
“That’s what I came for and I got it,” said Vlahos, smiling and laughing as the equipment was being loaded into the back of a pickup truck. “It was a good day.”
His friend, George Liakaris, also of Warren, bought a convection oven for $500. Liakaris owns the Mocha House coffee shops in Warren and Boardman.
A deep-fryer was bought for $175 by Dan Gallagher of North Jackson, who owns Jokers Wild Concessions.
“That was a great buy,” said Gallagher. “Those things cost about $800 new, so yes, I’m very happy.”
John Harbison of Youngstown, who said he regularly attends auctions, said the huge turnout Saturday was a shock.
“I guess it’s the economy that’s forcing people to look for better deals,” said Harbison. “I have found some decent deals at auctions. It pays to look.”
Skip Igo, 53, of Ellsworth had a different take on the reason for the turnout.
“I think it’s the weather,” said Igo, who went to the auction hoping to buy a riding lawn mower. “People have a little bit of cabin fever. The sun is out today and people are just getting out.”
He also said the nature of the sale, and the publicity that led up to it, probably helped contribute to the large turnout as well.
Although they would not identify him, Bodzak and task force member Jeff Hoolihan said the huge crowd even included one of the men who was arrested and sentenced to probation in the theft ring.
“Isn’t that a kick?” said Hoolihan, laughing.
“Not only is he here, but he walked up and shook my hand,” said Kasey Shidel, the assistant Mahoning County prosecutor who handled the cases against the theft ring suspects.
Shidel said the investigation took about 18 months and resulted in criminal charges’ being filed against 14 people.
“I’ve been coming to auctions my whole life,” Shidel said. “I have never seen this many people in one place to buy so few items. This is unbelievable.”
Bodzak said proceeds from the auction will be sent to the Ohio Organized Crime Commission in Columbus, which will then distribute it among the 15 law enforcement agencies who helped investigate and break up the theft ring.
Hoolihan, a police detective from Warren, said the merchandise had been stored in a huge warehouse in Warren while authorities searched for owners.