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Co-owner Amiee Smith opens a container with spent brass that was at the center of a Thursday Chattanooga police bust at Shooter's Depot on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Shooter's Depot was the site of a Chattanooga police bust of a brass-buying scam.
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A container with spent brass that was at the center of a Thursday Chattanooga police bust at Shooter's Depot is seen on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Shooter's Depot was the site of a Chattanooga police bust of a brass-buying scam.

A suspected Texas con man who had the brass to try his tricks in Chattanooga was taken down this week in a sting orchestrated by two local businesswomen working with the police.

"It was high drama," Amiee Smith said Friday, the day after police swarmed and arrested the man in the parking lot of Shooter's Depot, the store she owns with her dad on Shallowford Road.

Chattanooga police said the man and a woman companion are suspects in a multistate crime spree involving a stolen truck, fake IDs, a deceived fiancé and a trail of spent brass from an unknown number of gun ranges.

The man who introduced himself to Smith as "Steve Rhodes" and offered her a good price for brass shell casings for recycling is now in the Hamilton County Jail under his real name, Michael Mitchell, on theft and drug charges.

The woman with him, Christine Thompson, also was booked on theft and drug charges. And both may face charges in Pennsylvania, where Thompson allegedly sweet-talked a man into giving them the truck they were driving. The man mistakenly believed he was engaged to her, but later reported his ride stolen.

Smith said Chattanooga police "really stepped up," but she credits the bust to legwork by Kristi Manning, who owns Carter Shooting Supply in Harrison.

"She spearheaded the thing — she basically handed this guy to the CPD on a silver platter," she said.

Manning was fully motivated: She'd lost about $1,500 in used brass to "Rhodes" a few days earlier and was mad in a way that can't be described in a family newspaper.

"If he's done it to me, and he tells me he's going from range to range collecting brass, that means he's conned and screwed many other people and he's going to keep doing it until somebody puts a stop to it," Manning said Friday. "There's no telling how deep this is and how much more they're going to find."

Gun ranges accumulate and recycle used brass by the barrel, so it wasn't unusual for Manning to get a call from a recycler's representative. She said "Rhodes" offered her $2 a pound, a good price, and he was plausible and friendly when he arrived. He had an invoice on letterhead from a company she knew, and let her take a photo of his driver's license and the tag of his 2017 Dodge pickup before he hauled off 1,000 pounds of shells so he could get them weighed. He promised to be back in just a couple of hours with her money.

But he never came back. He ignored her calls and texts, so she called police and made a report. She also called around to other shops and found he'd already been to one, whose owner hadn't let him take away any metal, and he'd called Shooter's Depot. She also called area recyclers and asked them to be on the lookout for her brass.

Manning said she worked with Chattanooga police and Smith to set up the sting there.

"I was banking on him being stupid enough to not think competitors talk to each other. Apparently, he was," she said.

Smith said her father, John Martin, answered when "Rhodes" called.

"My dad laid it on pretty thick, kind of enticed him, saying, 'Oh, yeah, we have about 5,000 pounds of brass,'" she said.

They arranged for him to come Wednesday. Police set up across the street and waited, but he called and canceled because it was raining, and that's not good for brass.

They rescheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday, so police got back in place. They needed Manning in the shop to identify "Rhodes," so she waited with Smith and seven armed Shooter's Depot employees — the entire staff.

He was about two hours late, she said. And it wasn't enough for him just to come in the shop; to make a theft charge stick, he had to try to drive off with the metal.

"I had to go all the way through the motions of getting all our brass — 18 5-gallon buckets weighing 60 to 75 pounds apiece," Smith said. "We took all 18 and put them on the trailer."

"Rhodes" signed a receipt and was walking out toward his truck when the police closed in, blocking his vehicle with theirs and taking him into custody, along with the woman. Officers also got a small girl out of the truck and handed her over to Child Protective Services, Smith said, and the police affidavit said police also found 3.5 grams of heroin.

The affidavit said the woman identified herself as "Mimi Vatrono," and that's the name her forlorn fiancé knew her by.

The truck's tag led police to Pennsylvania, where the owner said he'd met Mimi on a dating site, PlentyOfFish.com, and allowed her to use his truck to fetch her belongings from Dallas so they could get married. At some point, he apparently lost faith in her and reported the truck stolen.

Meanwhile, police found "Steve Rhodes" was only one of a half-dozen false IDs their suspect carried, and that he was wanted in Texas under the Rhodes alias.

In Hamilton County, Mitchell, 39, and Thompson, 30, are charged with theft over $10,000, theft over $1,000, criminal simulation and possession of a controlled substance. Mitchell was also charged with criminal impersonation. They are due to appear Tuesday before General Sessions Judge Christie Mahn Sell.

Manning and Smith both said they were glad to be able to help Chattanooga police make the arrest.

"We're a mom-and-pop shop; $2,400, that's our payroll," Smith said.

Manning added, "We work hard for our money and for him to come along and rip folks like us off is just wrong."

She said she was able to get her point across personally when Mitchell was arrested.

"I waved at him yesterday when he was in handcuffs. He knows I'm the one behind catching him."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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