Pittsburgh Mills store owner accused of selling counterfeit items says charge is racially motivated
The owner of a Pittsburgh Mills mall store went from asking police to investigate a suspected burglary there to being charged with selling counterfeit merchandise.
The lawyer for Tommy Wang, the Asian-American owner of the store, now wants the charge against Wang thrown out, calling the investigation a “racially charged witch hunt.”
Wang, 42, of Highland Park is charged with one count of misdemeanor trademark counterfeiting. His attorney, Casey White, asks in a Feb. 7 motion filed with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Randal B. Todd, for the charge to be dismissed. The motion says police “specifically targeted him because of his Asian race,” and called the prosecution illegal.
“It’s my hope that Judge Todd can see that my client was singled out because of his race and that he was stereotyped and discriminated against,” White said Monday. “He went from being a victim of a burglary to a suspect of a crime because of his race.”
Police deny that allegation. Frazer police Chief Terry Kuhns said the investigation into Wang was not racially motivated. He said there was significant evidence against him.
“(What) his defense attorney is alluding to is absolutely untrue,” Kuhns said Monday.
Wang, at his store Monday, declined to comment. He referred all questions to his attorney.
The investigation into Wang started after Frazer police were called to the store inside the mall, Shop Off the Hanger, for a report of an attempted burglary in February 2018, according to the criminal complaint filed in the case.
Former Frazer police Officer Lee Bartolicius saw, in the front part of the store, more than 100 items of what appeared to be unlicensed, counterfeit merchandise, the police report states. Investigators went to the store twice in March to look at, take pictures of and purchase counterfeit items, the complaint said.
A search warrant served March 15 turned up seven pallets containing almost 1,800 suspected counterfeit items, including glass coasters, flags, clocks, beer mugs and wine glasses containing Harley-Davidson, Pitt, Penn State, Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Steelers logos.
According to the complaint, Bartolicius spoke with store employees, who told him Wang was aware that many of the items were counterfeit.
“We established substantial probable cause to obtain the search warrant by conducting undercover purchases of ‘knock-off’ items,” Kuhns said.
In the motion for dismissal, White said Bartolicius saw fish tanks in the store, which is what inspired him to start investigating Wang. In the search warrant, Bartolicius stated that he talked to Capt. Tom Crist of the state Fish and Boat Commission. Crist allegedly told Bartolicius, “It is common for a person engaged in illegal activity specifically of Asian descent to buy, sell, trade and breed in exotic, protected and endangered fish,” White’s motion states.
Fish and Boat Commission spokesman Mike Parker said the commission has no record of a conversation with the Frazer Police Department regarding the investigation. The Fish and Boat Commission did visit Wang’s store to investigate whether he was keeping snakehead, an illegal species of fish. He was not, Parker said.
“At that point, our involvement in the investigation concluded,” Parker said. “We have no further record of consultation by our officers involving this investigation.”
State police Trooper Todd Adamski wrote the criminal complaint outlining the charge against Wang and co-signed the search warrant. Adamski said Bartolicius’ investigation had nothing to do with Wang’s race.
“This whole investigation was triggered from the information he saw inside the building, specifically counterfeit merchandise. The aquariums were just a side note,” Adamski said.
Bartolicius now works for the Duquesne Police Department. He could not be reached for comment.
Wang is set to appear for a nonjury trial April 10.
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.