One of the focuses of a La Jolla Light investigation into consignment stores, Karl Winchell of Winchell Jewelry Designs, closed shop this month, following the launch of a San Diego Police investigation into his business practices, including multiple claims that he scammed customers of jewelry and cash (read the Light’s story at bit.ly/jewelryclaims).
Meryl Bernstein, a detective sergeant with San Diego Police's Northern Division, said she sent a report outlining the claims of five alleged victims to the Economic Crimes division of the San Diego County District Attorney’s office for possible prosecution.
“I know there are other victims out there,” Bernstein said, noting she is concentrating her efforts on those with the most solid evidence against Winchell. “Unfortunately, our victims did not sign any kind of consignment contract; they were only given handwritten receipts like you would be given at a dry cleaners.”
Although Bernstein said she does not know whether the DA’s office will open a case against Winchell — due to the civil nature of most consignment transactions — she said it has expressed a strong, initial interest.
Bernstein said she at first thought it would be difficult to prove criminal intent — since Winchell didn’t enter into official consignment contracts with his alleged victims — but the number of victims that have emerged makes it easier to do so. “I see a pattern, and the pattern is very similar,” she said.
Several alleged victims have filed civil court cases against Winchell, including retired sheet metal worker James Hall, who won the maximum allowable judgment against Winchell in small claims court April 10.
Hall, whom the Light interviewed for its earlier story, said he dropped off a diamond engagement ring at Winchell’s shop in May 2013 to be sold at consignment. He said Winchell never returned the ring nor paid him for it, only offering excuses each time he called the shop as to why the ring could not be returned, or why Hall could not be paid for it. Hall said the excuses included the ring being at an appraisal lab, being laser enhanced, on a national jewelry road show or misplaced.
“I demanded my ring many times,” Hall told Judge Peter Doft in court April 10. “The delays kept coming. I became convinced that Karl never intended to return my ring, and would never pay me either. ... Finally, (Winchell) told me he had the ring altered and sold for $16,000 and to just forget about it, because the lawyers would take more than the selling price.” Winchell told Judge Doft he hadn’t paid Hall because a customer was purchasing his ring on layaway, and because Hall allegedly made threats against him while protesting outside his store, after which Winchell said police advised him, “don’t confront this guy; don’t talk to him because he’s out of control.”
“I have the money,” Winchell maintained in court, telling Judge Doft that he decided to let the court decide if and when he should pay Hall.
La Jollan Nat Klein, a witness whom Hall met while protesting outside Winchell’s store, told Judge Doft that Winchell came up with a similar story as to why his mother’s bracelet also was never returned, and why Winchell never paid him for it.
“I demanded my bracelet back and was told it had been sent to a broker in Chicago for a potential client (to view),” said Klein, who claims he was next told the broker left for vacation in South Africa after selling the bracelet.
“I kept returning and finally Mr. Winchell said, ‘Well, the broker disconnected his phone and I’m not able to contact him, so that’s the end of it.’”
Winchell responded: “Mr. Klein has a lawyer, I have a lawyer, and we’re going to be negotiating this in court,” although Klein maintained that he had only asked an attorney to send Winchell a letter demanding the ring or payment, which garnered no response.
“All these other losses have all been taken care of,” Winchell told the judge. “They’ve all been paid. There’s only one that hasn’t been resolved and it’s in the process of being resolved now.”
In the end, Judge Doft cited what he believed to be “a series of inconsistent, evasive statements” by Winchell. “What’s going on here, to me, is that the ring has been stolen,” the judge said, awarding Hall $10,000 plus court costs.
Bernstein said she also has “no doubt” that Winchell, who also is listed as a sex offender with California’s online registry, is “intentionally scamming certain victims.”
“People don’t make up stories like this,” she said. “I feel sorry for these victims. They think this is a legitimate business because it’s in La Jolla.”
People who believe they have been victims of consumer theft or fraud by Winchell Jewelry Designs can call Det. Sgt. Bernstein at (858) 552-1729.
A sign left on Winchell’s former space at 1123 Wall St. states that he is in the process of relocating, and lists a phone number for customers to call “for all your repair or custom jewelry needs.”
Contacted by theLight at this number, Winchell maintained he has been “settling with people,” although Hall told the Light last week he had not been paid by the court’s established deadline and will have to file further court documents to seek payment from Winchell’s assets, which include properties in east Solana Beach, Clairemont and near San Diego State University.
When asked why he had not paid Hall when reached by phone last week, Winchell told the Light “They haven’t sent me any notice to pay him,” then he hung up when asked if Judge Doft hadn’t made his intention clear in court April 10.
During a second phone call, Winchell said he was busy, and hung up again.
Sources close to theLight say Winchell may be planning to reopen in a space on Prospect Street — but not if Bernstein has any say in the matter.
“I want this guy out of La Jolla,” she said. “I would like to see him shut down, period ... or behind bars.”