'It's good to see those stealing cars are paying the price for it'

TACOMA, Wash. -- More than a dozen people were reunited with their stolen cars in Tacoma Wednesday, thanks to an undercover operation where cops posed as crooks themselves.

Andrew Potter couldn't believe the day somebody stole his car in Tacoma -- or when police told him they got it back.

"Yeah, I was really surprised," Potter said.

But what absolutely floored him was how police got it back. For six months, a task force of local officers and federal agents ran a chop-shop of their own -- an operation they called "Shiny Penny" where undercover cops bought and sold cars, trucks and SUVs hot off the street.

"The operation always starts out a little slow," said Lt. Chris Lawler with Lakewood Police. "You got to build a customer base or a trust among these thieves."

And while Lawler said they didn't know if it would work, it did.

"We're making a dent in it which is good," Lawler said.

The task force says they arrested 21 suspects, recovered 26 vehicles, 16 firearms and 11 other pieces of stolen property.

And Wednesday, officers returned all of it -- including Mariah Morris' memories.

"These were things I was hoping to get back," she said.

Included was a priceless photo of her grandparents.

"This is my absolute favorite picture of them," she said. "I keep it on my dash."

But there's also the last photo of her boyfriend's brother, who died two years ago.

Now, she and the 20 other victims can smile a little more.

Including Potter, who thought he'd lost everything.

"It's good to see that people who are actually stealing cars, they're actually paying the price for it instead of getting away with it," he said.

Officers say they're still looking for 5 suspects.