The question on Daniel Strite’s mind is: How could such a good friend be such a good fraud?
Strite, 35, is the third local resident in the past week to report being ripped off by a 40-year-old Post Falls man posing as an antique dealer.
Strite is an antique enthusiast who buys, sells and refurbishes rare furniture from his home. He and his wife lost $17,600 from their personal rare furniture collection when Heaven’s Treasures Antique Store owner Jimmy Laughnan skipped town last week.
The loss of a $12,000 French-Chinese china cabinet on consignment at the store was financially devastating, but just as difficult has been the Strites’ loss of faith after a trusting relationship developed over months ended in deceit.
Laughnan, who is on parole for robbery and has had 18 convictions in the past 19 years, is being sought on a $25,000 arrest warrant on grand theft charges in Kootenai County.
“He’s a con artist,” said Kootenai County sheriff’s Lt. Nile Shirley. “These people who do this are smooth-talking devils. They are salesmen and darn good ones.”
According to police reports, Laughnan posed as an antique dealer at his Government Way store, contracting with victims to give him money to buy antiques, which he promised to resell for large profits.
Coeur d’Alene resident Joanne Switzer, 37, reported $12,000 stolen after Laughnan never produced two rare ivory statues he said he had purchased from a Sandpoint pawnshop.
A contract agreed the $12,000 bone statues would be resold in seven working days for $50,000, with $10,000 taken out for Laughnan’s marketing services. When Switzer asked to see the statues, she was told they had been sent to a collector’s agency for authentication. Switzer’s background checks into Laughnan eventually revealed her bill of sale was a fake and the statues never had left the Sandpoint pawnshop.
According to a civil suit filed in Kootenai County last week, James Kernan Crotty of Spokane loaned Heaven’s Treasures $32,000 with the store’s antiques as collateral. Crotty, who operates Latah Creek Investment Co., said in court documents he believes the valuables were loaded onto a train headed for the East Coast.
According to police reports, Willem Huender, 63, of Coeur d’Alene, initially invested $30,000 for antiques to be resold for profit. When the antiques didn’t sell as planned, Laughnan asked Huender for another $45,000 to buy more antiques and hold a larger auction.
Huender additionally gave Laughnan checks for $8,000 and $5,000 to help the business, believing the loan would be paid back. While Huender eventually received a check for $8,000, two other checks for the remaining $80,000 bounced at the bank. When Huender went to Heaven’s Treasures, Laughnan had disappeared with the cache of antiques.
Strite said he believes Laughnan originally had good intentions, but resorted to less-honest tactics when a large silent auction wasn’t as successful as planned. He held true to his word at first, Strite said.
“He established a very good record, trust and good faith. At first we were very skeptical, but he came through with everything.”
Once, after looking at Strite’s collection, Laughnan offered to buy several pieces for $60,000. Two weeks later, he was back with the money.
“I liked the guy. He was nice and I never heard him swear. Everything was pointing in the right direction. He had a very humble appearance, was very articulate and expressed himself like a professional. He said he was a Christian man, a man of his word.”
Indeed, Laughnan had been attending and making friends at New Life Community Church in Coeur d’Alene. Although Strite attends a different church, Laughnan had become a family friend - someone they would have trusted with their home, even their children.
“We are not only financially hurt, but hurt in a way because we really trusted this guy,” Strite said. “It took me two or three days to realize he really did this. I did not believe it.”
Antique scams are not common here, Shirley said, noting that Laughnan’s tactics were particularly slick. He doctored receipts, bills of sale, even sent electronic mail to himself that appeared to have come from Seattle antique appraisers.
Authorities believe Laughnan to be in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is encouraged to call the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department at 664-1511.
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