Armed, alert and not alone are rules for pawnshops

On Matt Butler's right forearm, in black ink, are the words "Trust Nobody."


It's a motto that testifies to the decade Butler has spent working in pawnshops.

He has another motto, too, about the three things necessary to run a safe operation: "surveillance systems, firearms and a sixth sense."

On a recent afternoon, Butler and his co-workers sat inside Downtown Pawn on Broad Street and talked about staying safe in an increasingly dangerous environment.

Two weeks ago, pawnshop owner James Benny Tidwell was shot dead inside his store on Mike Padgett Highway. Clinton Shelton is accused of shooting Tidwell at close range during a robbery. A gun, cash and Tidwell's wallet were later found at the home where Shelton was arrested.

Such tragedies ripple through the pawnshop community, where workers look out for each other and fill in at each other's shops. Some fear that thieves are getting more desperate because of economic hard times and more likely to kill someone than risk getting caught.

Ray Bigger said he was "emotionally strung out" after the shooting of Tidwell, his co-worker at Mo Money Jewelry and Pawn. Tidwell was filling in for Bigger -- who was in the hospital recovering from colon surgery -- on the day Tidwell was killed.

Standing inside a newly reopened Mo Money on Tuesday, Bigger said he thinks drugs are making thieves more desperate for cash. He always keeps a gun nearby and said it's important to have more than one person in the store.

Unfortunately, Tidwell had neither. According to investigators and court testimony, Tidwell had left his weapon in the car, and he was by himself.

The best way to stay alive is to be armed, alert and not alone, said Richmond County Investigator Thelma Gilchrist, a law enforcement officer for more than 30 years and for the past few months a member of the sheriff's pawnshop unit.

She said she was surprised by the element of danger that comes with working in and around pawnshops.

"They're dangerous because most of them take weapons -- they sell weapons -- and people walk in and out with weapons," Gilchrist said. "It's a situation where you have to be really alert and I started wearing my weapons whenever I go out to a pawnshop."

Butler said he has never felt threatened while working at Downtown Pawn. It's his store's policy to have three people working at all times. They're armed and there's a video surveillance system.

Even so, sometimes the best precautions aren't enough.

Seven years ago, David L. Vanderloop, 54, was killed inside Mo Money by Glenn E. Beasley. He admitted to shooting Vanderloop as his back was turned, then standing over him and firing once more. Beasley is serving life in prison.

In 1994, 63-year-old Beverly Williford was gunned down at Crackshot 4 pawnshop on Gordon Highway. Two years before that, Floyd and Marie Thigpen were shot to death during a robbery at their Old Savannah Road pawnshop.

Bigger said he has questioned whether he wanted to continue in the business. He runs his own store on Wrightsboro Road and had hoped to continue at Mo Money, but Tidwell's family has decided to close later this month.

"I'm going to keep doing what I do," Bigger said. "I'm a pawnbroker. That's my life."