A thief broke into my car. I used Craigslist, a dating site, MySpace and a fast food joint to track him down
In the first 24 hours after someone broke into my car in my own driveway, I was mostly mad at my husband. Who leaves a backpack with a BlackBerry and a wallet full of cash and credit cards in the car overnight, with a GPS visible on the dashboard and the freaking car doors unlocked? We might as well have hung a sign on the door that read: Suckers live here. Welcome!
The day before had been magical — a beautiful, warm, sunny fall Sunday in San Francisco. We lingered in the city too long but still had to buy groceries on our way home from an exhibit of watercolors and drawings from “Where the Wild Things Are.” As we pulled into our driveway, I said to my husband, “I’ll run in and start dinner. You bring in the bags.” And that’s the last thing I remember. The next morning, the glove compartment was open, papers hanging out. The GPS was gone.
I canceled four credit cards and ordered a new BlackBerry before I thought to check Craigslist. I didn’t know what I’d find, but it occurred to me that pawn shops were the domain of desperate crackheads and that the savvy modern thief would hock stolen wares online. I did a search in a 40-mile radius of my neighborhood. My GPS was the first thing that popped up.
To be honest, I wasn’t certain that Garmin Nuvi 265w was my GPS; I didn’t remember the model number. For all I knew this was some poor schmuck who’d fallen on hard times trying to get a little cash. Still, it was awfully suspicious. It was the only Garmin on Craigslist that morning. And the entire ad was written in capital letters, as if that particular seller were jumping up and down, trying to get my attention.
My hands shook as I tapped out what I hoped was a casual e-mail query: “Hi!! I could TOTALLY use a GPS. Is this one still available? Where are you located? Thanks!!! Jasmine.”
The reply came in less than minute. The seller described accessories that were painfully familiar: the dash mount and the auto charger — no box, no manual, no receipt. He listed an address for pickup at an outdoor mall in San Mateo, about five miles away, and asked for my telephone number so he could call me. (That was weird: Wasn’t I supposed to call him?) He signed his name “John,” but the name listed in the parenthesis next to his email address read, “Harry Sham.” The nerve.
At this point, I hadn’t called the cops. I hadn’t filed a police report and was leaning toward not filing one. Our car was unlocked, after all. It was almost as if we deserved to get robbed. But then something peculiar happened. A woman who lived a few blocks away e-mailed to say she found some papers from my wallet, including my business card, in her front yard. She wanted to return them to me, thinking I might have dropped them accidentally. I had to wonder: What else might be dumped around my neighborhood?
After school, my kids and I set out on foot for a scavenger hunt. On one neighbor’s lawn, we found the little cardboard wish boxes the kids had decorated at the museum the previous day. We found my discarded Books Inc. frequent book buyers’ card, ready to be redeemed, among some bushes. (Not a big reader, this guy.) My backpack lay in someone’s driveway, barely hidden by some shrubs. My BlackBerry and makeup were still inside.
For about a mile up the road, I found pieces of my life, snatched and discarded. It was like Hansel and Gretel, like the thief was creating a path to him, as if he wanted me to find him. Then, abruptly, the trail stopped.
I suppose I should have been glad to get my things back (but not that the insurance company would cancel the new phone I’d already ordered, so that’s $100 I lost). But here’s a note to aspiring thieves: If you’re going to steal someone’s personal items — the BlackBerry with contact information for dear old friends, the wedding anniversary wallet that her husband bought her when she finished chemo, stuffed with about two years’ worth of love letters from her toddlers, hopeful doctors’ notes, and other scraps of paper she couldn’t bear to part with — that person would probably prefer you just dump it all in the trash. Because finding fragments of your private life on people’s yards and scattered on the street, in the shrubs and gutters, is a unique kind of psychological torment. Suddenly a routine violation starts to feel really personal.
See, aspiring thief, you just never know what you’re stepping into when you hit up a random car on a random street. However badass you think you may be, there is someone on the other side of the robbery. And in this particular case it was someone who escaped the Iranian Revolution as a child; who roamed the world alone for five years because her parents couldn’t get out; who watched from a dozen blocks away as the twin towers crumbled; who had just barely clawed her way out of that concentration camp known as late-stage cancer, if only because she was intent on raising her babies, come hell or high water. And all of this before she even turned 40. Can you see how that someone might be way more twisted than you?
By the end of that first day, I knew what the thief looked like. I ran his e-mail address through a reverse e-mail finder, which cost me about 15 bucks for a month’s worth of “surveillance.” There was no information about the address — except he used that same e-mail to sign up for a low-rent dating site about a week or two before and had made the colossal mistake of uploading three pictures of himself and three pictures of his girl Amberley, with a heart tattoo on her right boob. He was a tall linebacker type with an emerging belly and piercing blue eyes that seemed to issue a dare. He looked vaguely neo-Nazi, but maybe that was just the blond buzz cut.
He had not posted his whole name. But I knew what I had to work with: John F, Caucasian, 23 years old, from San Mateo. His moniker: Johnny Boi.
At the time, I was still dabbling. Then two events on Wednesday pushed my hand. That morning, an elderly woman a few blocks away had found some more papers in her yard, one of them particularly embarrassing. Then around 9:30 p.m., I received a Facebook message from someone who lived in my old apartment. A good Samaritan had put an envelope through her mail slot that contained my driver’s license with the old address and my now-canceled credit cards. That person included a note saying she had found my stuff on the ground in the San Mateo Caltrain station.
That sealed it: I called the police. They were over in 15 minutes. I filed a report, handed over Johnny Boi’s Craigslist ad and his photos from the dating site. The following day, I met a detective I’ll call Inspector Vargas. Not the touchy-feeliest man in the world, but he seemed competent and was hunky in a Marlboro-man sort of way. If he was impressed by my amateur sleuthing, he did not utter a word about it.
He sent a reply to Johnny’s now-several-days-old Craigslist ad. I doubted Johnny Boi would respond, and I was right. Inspector Vargas also insisted I find the GPS model and serial number. Without it, he said, there was no way to connect the thief to my stuff. You might suspect someone who has not cleared out her wallet in two years probably didn’t record her GPS model and serial number. And you would be correct. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t find either.
But here’s what I did instead. I called all my credit card companies to see if Johnny Boi had managed to slip in any charges in those two or three hours before I shut down the cards. The answer was no, no, no. And yes: McDonald’s.
Inspector Vargas told me later that credit card thieves will head someplace like a McDonald’s or a gas station first to see if the card is still working. Smart move, Johnny Boi. Actually, no, it was not smart at all, and here’s why: McDonald’s has developed one of the best restaurant surveillance systems in the entire world. Now I didn’t know this either. But Inspector Vargas did. Because as soon as I got him the time and place Johnny had used my Amex, he went on down to that McDonald’s in San Mateo and looked through its surveillance tapes.
And there, in his full glory, was my boy. The hat he was sporting didn’t even come close to covering him up.
By now it was Friday afternoon, and Inspector Vargas does not work weekends or Mondays, thanks to the California state budget cuts. I knew if we were to find out anything else about Johnny in the next several days, it would have to be all me.
That’s when I started to hang out on his dating site. Good news for Johnny: There was a gorgeous blond girl with green eyes viewing his profile. Bad news for Johnny: It was me, and I look nothing like that. But Johnny hadn’t logged on in 10 days, and I was hitting a dead end. Here’s where I will cop to being a bit judgmental. Given Johnny’s dozen tattoos, given his weakness for skank, I made a leap — and assumed he was on MySpace. After several searches, I couldn’t find him — but Johnny’s girl Amberley came up.
Actually her cleavage did, complete with the heart tattoo. And her profile was very public. Her collage of Johnny’s photos showed him grabbing a fat stogie in one hand and his testicles with the other, and another few of him sipping beer from containers more suited for watering plants. I wasn’t happy to see that Amberley listed herself as “expecting” and a “smoker.” Her status was “engaged.” (Was Johnny Boi getting married?) Prominent among her list of BFFs was … well, you know who. And his profile was public.
It was the mother lode: His first and last name, birth date and place of birth, his height, his high school and the year he graduated, the fact that he worked at Applebee’s in 2007. I faxed the information to Inspector Vargas. I made sure to point out Johnny Boi’s friend Tatiana’s comment from three months back: “Dude!!! How do you not work? You win the freak’n lotto??? If yes, you need to be spreadin the love.”
The writer in me could not resist checking out Johnny’s two or three angry poems posted on his MySpace. They were pretty good.
Two days later I got a call at 7 a.m. Inspector Vargas had run Johnny Boi’s photo by the San Mateo police. They recognized him immediately because our boy was on probation. According to Inspector Vargas, Johnny Boi went on the run soon after the police visited his apartment. That night, Amberley took her man’s photo collage off MySpace.
The following day someone named Paula wrote on Amberley’s MySpace: “Tell your friend that his parents are being harassed by the police. He ought to DO THE RIGHT THING and turn himself in!!” Poor Paula’s mood was listed as “anxious.”
The next day Inspector Vargas told me Johnny Boi was in jail. A couple weeks later Johnny Boi pleaded guilty.
He’s several months into a two-year sentence.
I’ve told this story many times since. I get a lot of reactions, because it’s a strange tale — to think you could find out so much online about a thief, to think what a bizarre wormhole I found into one stranger’s life. But what took me a long time to realize, what I missed at first amid my drama of violation and vengeance, was the remarkable displays of kindness I experienced from absolute strangers — people who retrieved scraps of paper from lawns, picked up piles of discarded cards from a dirty train station floor, drove miles to restore someone’s belongings, searched Facebook to find me. If I were mathematically inclined, I might even observe that in my tale, the good guys outnumbered the bad guys, by about 10 to one.
Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Detroit News, and “Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora” (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her daily blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.
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