STOLEN LAPTOP: CUTTING EDGE PRIVATE TECHNOLOGY MEETS GOVERNMENT INERTIA IN WASHINGTON, DC
Matthew Steehler is a junior Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) resident physician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in DC. A junior resident is a physician who has just graduated from Medical school and now needs to serve a sort of apprenticeship. Typically, he owes more money in student loans than some people owe on their mortgages. He works the longer hours. He works the most undesirable shifts. He makes less money than his nurses.
Around the time he graduated from medical school, Dr. Steehler decided to buy himself a laptop computer that he would not outgrow. "I wanted a laptop computer that was good enough so I would never want to buy another. I opted for a customized Dell that cost me $1,800," he explained.
In late January, Dr. Steehler's big boss, the ENT Chief, said that she was interested to see some research data that Dr. Steehler had on his laptop computer. At about the same time, Dr. Steehler's other boss, the ENT Senior Resident, asked if Dr. Steehler wouldn't please bring his digital camera to work for a special project. That is why, on the morning of January 25, Dr. Steehler came to work with his customized Dell laptop and his Olympus Stylus 8000 digital camera. Dr. Steehler has his own private office and he put them there for safe keeping.
That afternoon, Dr Steehler was in his office. The Senior Resident phoned and asked if he would please step around the corner to the Senior Resident's office for a brief conference. Dr. Steehler left his office and closed the door. He was gone from 3:45 PM to 4:20. When he returned, his laptop computer and digital camera had vanished.
"My initial reaction was denial," explained Dr. Steehler. "I mean, I tend to think the best of people. After all, I'm here serving veterans. We're all here on that same mission. I just didn't think it was possible that any of the employees or my patients would do anything like that. I searched my memory, retracing events. After I had thought about it for a few minutes, there was no escaping the fact that I had left the items in my office and now they were gone.
Dr. Steehler immediately phoned the Veterans Administration Police. The VA Police bristle if you call them security guards. They will tell you that they carry guns, they have the power to arrest, and they are "real police."
"My laptop computer has just been stolen," Dr. Steehler reported over the phone. "It's in a black computer case. Could you check at exits and try to find it before it leaves the building?"
"Dr. Steehler, we have three officers on duty. We do not have the resources to look for your laptop computer."
"Oh. Well, okay, could you send someone to take a police report? And there's a security camera outside my office. Could we look at the tapes?"
By Dr. Steehler's account, the VA Police needed persuading to send an officer right away to take a police report. They also advised him that no one was available to examine the security camera video until a certain detective returned to work the following Monday.
In the meantime, Dr. Steehler remembered that he had Lojack for Laptops on his computer, so he called Lojack. They assigned a case manager named Steve King, a former Baltimore police officer. They initiated a search for the laptop and found it within hours of its disappearance. They monitored the e-mail traffic of the apparent thief, got his name, his Facebook data, and his physical address on the evening of the same afternoon of the theft. They called Dr. Steehler the next day, Friday, with the joyous news.
"The thing is," said Dr. Steehler, "If someone breaks into your house and steals everything including your laptop, you can probably find everything if you can find the laptop quickly. For that reason, I was hopeful of recovering both the laptop and the camera."
The key word in the last paragraph is "quickly."
Dr. Steehler phoned the VA Police and advised them that Lojack had a name and address for the apparent thief. The VA police replied that if it was off campus, they had no jurisdiction."
That is when Dr. Steehler decided to file a DC Police report. The VA Medical Center is located in the police Fifth District. Dr. Steehler drove to the Fifth District headquarters on January 27 and filed a report. He spoke to the supervising Detective Witherspoon. He emphasized that Lojack had a name and address where the computer was presently located. Detective Witherspoon replied that a detective would be assigned to the case and Dr. Steehler could expect to hear from that detective the following week.
"That was ludicrous!" Dr. Steehler said later. "I reported a felony. I essentially handed him a name and address where he could go and find the felon and physical evidence. All he could say was that a detective would be assigned and that I could expect to hear from that detective the following week!"
Back at the VA Hospital, a senior physician counseled Dr. Steehler to claim that patient data was on the laptop. That would bring the FBI into action. The FBI would definitely go to the address, recover the computer, and make arrest, said the senior physician.
"I'm a pretty straight shooter," explained Dr. Steehler. "I didn't want to say there was patient data on the laptop because there wasn't. I don't want to lie. Besides, I had confidence in the DC Police Department, especially since we had a person's name and address."
The Fifth District assigned Detective Tony Walls to the case. She phoned Dr. Steehler. She had spoken to Steve King at Lojack. Unfortunately, the computer had now gone silent. It was active on January 25, and 26 -- but then it went silent. Maybe the felon had sold it to a pawn shop. Who knows? In any event, they couldn't tell where the laptop was now, so there was really nothing to do."
"I left it for dead at that point," said Dr. Steehler.
But Lojack was still on the case. Steve King phoned Dr. Steehler February 11, and reported that the laptop was active again. They had a new name, and e-mail data, and Facebook data and physical name and address. They had determined that the current user was a relative of the apparent thief. Dr. Steehler reported all of this information to Detective Walls at 8 AM. on February 11, Friday.
"I think she took a 3 or 4 day weekend," said Dr. Steehler. "It was Valentines Day. Anyway, she was out for a long weekend. Walls didn't talk to Steve King until Tuesday, February 15. The stolen laptop was still active at that time -- same person, same address. Now that Detective Walls had all the information, complete with a name and address within her jurisdiction, I was confident. I decided to give her a week."
Dr. Steehler heard nothing back that week and into the next. He phoned the Fifth District headquarters on February 22. Detective Walls was out. He spoke to Sgt. McDonald.
"Sgt. McDonald seemed interested in the case," said Dr. Steehler. "He checked the file. It turned out that Detective Walls hadn't documented anything," said Dr. Steehler. "She hadn't documented names or addresses or conversations with Lojack. That seemed strange. Sgt. McDonald promised that he would look into the matter. However, I didn't hear anything back after that."
Dr Steehler began to feel frustrated. "I was talking to Lojack's Steve King. Steve King had been so meticulous and extremely professional. He was a former Baltimore police officer. I could hear in his voice that he was feeling frustrated. When someone like that is expressing frustration, that's a good sign that I need to be frustrated, too."
On February 25, having heard nothing from the Fifth District, Dr. Steehler, in desperation, phoned a friend at the Park Police and explained the situation. The Park Police have jurisdiction where the computer is located, as well as the DC Police. The friend is a Park Police officer. He consulted with his supervisor. He said he didn't want to send Park Police to do a "knock and talk" without a search warrant; however, with the information from Lojack, he said, the Park Police would have "no problem whatsoever" getting a search warrant. They could do the paperwork, conduct the search, recover the laptop and make the arrest -- and then hand the whole "package" over to the Fifth District Police on a silver platter to take credit just as if they had solved the crime and made the arrest."
Later that day, Friday, February 25, one month after the theft, the Fifth District phoned Dr. Steehler and said they were initiating a request for a search warrant. Finally!!! One must wonder whether the Park Police made a phone call to the Fifth District and prodded for action. Who can say? All we can say is that, as of today, the stolen computer is still in use by the same person at the same address inside the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia Police Department. A felony theft has been committed. Additionally, it is a crime to receive stolen property. Lojack has been professional and diligent. It has the name and address of the apparent thief, and the name and address of the relative who received the stolen property. Dr. Steehler would like to press charges. Lojack has made complete documentation of the investigation. Everything for a search and arrest has been handed to the DC Police on a silver platter!!! Now we shall see if the Keystone Cops can recover the goods and obtain a conviction.
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