Petty Criminals vs. the iPhone 3GS. Who wins?

I wish I was writing a blog about how clever technology and top-notch police work prevailed over petty crooks. How citizens and our sworn protectors teamed up to nab another bad guy and preserve the safety of a neighborhood. Unfortunately instead, I’m writing about what happens when you have cutting-edge technology and human error/indifference get in the way of it. In the see-saw battle between crooks and technology, we have a new weapon: GPS. But what good is it if A). the Police don’t trust it or B). lack the judgment to use it to their advantage?

I cannot withhold my anger and frustration over the way this case was handled anymore. I did everything within my power to assist the police and they did nothing. I was robbed at gunpoint and gift-wrapped the crooks to the police and they gave it absolutely no priority. Now it’s time to tell the truth so that hopefully it will never happen again. Hopefully my misfortune will lead to some good.

My City & Neighborhood

Emeryville is a city on the rise if your unfamiliar with it. IKEA, The Bay St. shopping complex, Emeryville Public Market, two theaters and a Target on the way. This combined with tenants such as Pixar, Jamba Juice and Novartis, it has become a model of rapid growth (and gridlock some say) in the East Bay. There’s a free shuttle to BART and an Amtrak Station. It has become a model for high-density urban living. Loft Condominiums have sprouted up everywhere and many first-time homebuyers such as myself have capitalized on its rapid expansion. I’ve even read that Emeryville boasts the highest per capita number of artists of any city in California. The City is only 1.1 sq. miles with about 10,000 people. Some great city data can be found here.
Violent crime is low (Annual average of about one murder/year) but it still sits adjacent to West Oakland and “Broakley” (The North Oakland/Berkeley Border) and unfortunately, the crooks see this prosperity as an opportunity and Emeryville has become a target for crooks, especially car thieves. Lately, it seems these crooks have become more brazen and Armed Robbery seems to be becoming their crime of choice.

What most associate with the the City of Emeryville

The Robbery – Thursday August 12th, 2010 Approx. 8:45pm

After getting my hair cut by my Sister in Fremont, I headed home to walk my dog Fiona. In what turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing, I had a conversation with my sister about the merits of Apple’s MobileMe service as her Husband had recently lost his phone and had to replace the expensive gadget. I got home a bit later than usual, set my things down and immediately set about my normal routine of an evening walk with my Dog Fiona. At 8:45 it was not pitch black but still pretty dark. Fiona gently tugged me down Park Avenue (the street I live on) toward Hollis, sniffing every piece of foliage along the way. We crossed Horton in front of the Peete’s corporate headquarters where she stopped to smell some bushes. From around the corner, I spotted two black youths approximately 16-18 years out of my peripheral vision. As they got closer, the taller of the two showed the Black gun he held at his side and demanded that I “give us yo shit”. It was a bit surreal and I calmly reached into my back pocket and retrieved my wallet. The shorter of the two grabbed it from me and then reached for the iPhone in my hand which I obligingly handed over. The Taller one, holding the gun, then Demanded “Where’s the money? The money!”. I replied that that was all I had (my wallet had maybe $30) as the shorter of the two tapped the back of his hand around my various pockets to confirm this. “Don’t turn around, and don’t follow us” said the taller one as they both disappeared around the corner.
I gave them about 30 seconds, crossed the street and then headed back toward my house in a slight Daze. Did this just really happen?
I passed a couple of neighbors and warned them about what had happened and that they should probably avoid that area. I ran upstairs to my unit and immediately called the Emeryville Police. They responded quickly and I met them in the lobby.

The scene of the crime

The Technology

So Apple offers a service called MobileMe for $99/yr. It includes quite a few useful features but by far the most useful one is the ability to track your GPS equipped devices through it’s “Find my iPhone” feature. Because the iPhone uses Satellite GPS (as opposed to the cell-Phone tower triangulation technology), it is impressively accurate. Some tests have shown it to be accurate to within three meters. I’ve tested it personally and even witnessed it used to locate a coworkers phone that she had left in her car. Recently, you might have even read or seen a TV story on how cops have used this to locate stolen phones. If you search “iPhone GPS Robbery” you’ll get an idea how common an occurrence this has become. This one happened recently in San Francisco.

Emeryville PD’s Response

This is not the first time I’ve been a victim of crime. In my nearly Seven years as an Emeryville Resident, I’ve had my car stolen out of my garage and had my wife’s two month old bike stolen. The Emeryville police have always been quick to respond and courteous. I ushered the two officers upstairs to my neighbor’s house where I had already logged in and located their whereabouts: a Valero Gas Station in Oakland’s Fruitvale district (Generally their first move is to “Fill-up”). “We got these guys” I thought to myself.

Valero Gas Station at International & Fifth Ave. 9:12 P.M.

We relayed the location to an officer who teamed up with an OPD officer and they made their way to the Gas Station. Unfortunately they “jumped” shortly before they got there to this location in East Oakland. An Apartment complex at 2454 Fruitvale Ave (inset Google street view photo composited).

Fruitvale District Apartment complex. 9:59 P.M.

At this point, the police explained to me that they were not going to go on a wild goose chase for the phone and that my next course of action would be to file a report and work with a detective that would be assigned to my case in the morning. My report included vague descriptions of the criminals but between it being dark & their attire, I really couldn’t provide anything distinct about them that would clearly identify them besides their builds and age.

Error No. 1

It didn’t occur to me immediately but shouldn’t the police have requested the Gas Stations Surveillance footage right then and there? We knew the exact time they were there and even if we couldn’t identify them or get a plate, surely we could match the vehicle to their subsequent locations? Maybe I’ve watched too much Law & Order? regardless, by the time this was acted on several days later, the tape had looped around and with it, probably the best opportunity to put these guys behind bars.

Next stops: San Pablo & Richmond

At this point, they/my iPhone headed north on San Pablo with a stop here in the city of San Pablo

San Pablo, CA at 12.07 A.M.

And then off to the criminal Sanctuary city known Richmond, CA. Gaynor Ave at 23rd St.

Richmond, CA at 1:01 A.M.

And then ultimately to their final destination here at 673 28th St., Richmond CA where they spent the night.

673 28th St., Richmond, CA. Friday 8/13 at 10:06 A.M.

The Next Day

So the next day I spoke with a detective from the Emeryville PD (I’m not going to use names). He was nice and even professional but I never got the “we’re going to get these guys” vibe from him. This really didn’t make me feel very confident in the whole process from the start. I explained the technology to him and even provided my login and password for the MobileMe account so he could personally monitor them. So the MobileMe service even provides features for locking your Phone remotely and even removing the data. You can also send alerts to the Phone to try to communicate with whom ever possesses the phone. I didn’t do this because I didn’t want to tip them off that I was tracking them. I wasn’t worried about them using the phone or mining my data because I had a lock feature that activates after 15 minutes of inactivity. Unfortunately at this point the battery has apparently run out of juice and the last contact with the Phone was at 9:44 A.M. on Friday 8/13.
We still had them though, right? Next move is to contact the Richmond P.D. and send over a unit to the house that could search the unit for the Phone, identify the suspects and we’d have these guys off the street, right? Not so fast.
So despite the photo that you see above that includes all the cross-streets, a picture of the house (where there only 3 houses) and even an approximate address, Richmond’s finest could not locate the house. They reported it back as a “bad address”. To make matters worse, my Emeryville Detective was leaving for vacation and wouldn’t be back until the following Tuesday.
My first thought was that perhaps the Google street view was old and perhaps the house has been renovated and was no longer recognizable. I took it upon myself drive there and find out.

The Richmond P.D. – Sunday August 15th

I was a bit nervous driving there but at this point I knew if anything was going to happen, I had to take it upon myself. It was about a 15 minute drive and I used the time to create worst-case scenarios in my head and how I would react if the the crooks spotted and began to open fire (crazy I know, but I was a bit on edge). I arrived to find a pretty well-kept middle-class neighborhood. A far cry from the Urban War-Zone I had envisioned. I drove by slowly and snapped up a pic and made note of the address. It was 1 number off from the approximate address I provided them and they may have upgraded their Window Frames (Ahhhh, no wonder the Richmond PD couldn’t find it) but the same color.

Suspected House. Richmond, CA

I drove a safe distance away and pulled over to call the Richmond police with this new intel. I explained the situation to the dispatcher and she reiterated that the address was bad. “No” I explained, “I just drove by and found the place no-problem”. I communicated the actual address to her and she seemed a bit confused. “I’ll just come in if that’s OK” I said, frustrated by their lack of urgency. I drove over to the Richmond P.D. Headquarters and spoke to the lady at the counter. Her response was basically “What do you want us to do? The crime happened in Emeryville.” So they apparently were willing to follow up initially but not now. Do you only get one chance to catch crooks? After another attempt at rewording things so that she understood, she began to get visibly annoyed as if I was wasting her time. I saw I was getting nowhere and calmly asked if I could speak with an officer. About 15-20 minutes later an Officer arrived and I explained the situation for yet a third time. He explained to me that they could not act on this until talking to the Emeryville Detective as they didn’t want to interfere with the pending case. This was reasonable thinking although I knew nothing had changed in the case since the initial attempt on Friday to locate the house. Basically, they had to hear it from another officer not from a citizen. I would have to wait for the Emeryville Detective to return on Tuesday to move forward. The case was getting cold.

Emeryville’s Follow up

When the detective returned on Tuesday, I gave him an update of what had transpired over the weekend. He explained that he would relay the information to the Richmond PD and try to get them to send a unit over to inquire with the occupants or perhaps even get a judge to issue a search warrant. For a moment I thought we might actually get somewhere. The next call back was to tell me that this wasn’t going to happen and that intel indicated that the ethnicity of the occupants of the house did not meet the description of the criminals. It’s true that it’s quite possible that the Robbers sold the iPhone for a quick profit. I guess possessing stolen property as a result of a robbery lowers the priority even further. Apparently inquiring about how the phone was obtained would take away from higher priority crimes than armed robbery. No search warrant, no cops to the door, nothing. I had run out of clues to provide them and the trail had run dry. Apparently because I wasn’t actually shot, this crime would not be prioritized.

How this could have been avoided

When I’m walking to my car in DT Oakland after work, I’m on my guard. When I’m walking my dog around my neighborhood at 8:45, I’m usually not. If I was aware of any recent criminal activity, I definitely would be more cautious. Instead I was admittedly not paying particular attention to my surroundings (I definitely do now!). It wasn’t until after this incident that I heard of a similar one that had happened about a month ago not that far away. The Detective I spoke with knew nothing about this. Many Cities have have begun using crime blotter websites to map crimes and identify crime hot-spots such as Oakland’s Version. Emeryville has nothing like this (although the Chief of police did mention that they were working on something. Too late for me). In fact an extensive web search turned up no mention of the aforementioned crime or my own crime three weeks later. Citizens have the right to know if they’re under attack and word-of-mouth is probably not the best way to communicate this.

Our neighborhood has undergone a recent face-lift that included new streets, extended sidewalks, Benches, Trees & Lighting. Our Neighborhood had been ripped apart over the last year plus and it hasn’t been pleasant. As residents of Emeryville we’ve grown used to this and I think we all tolerate it because we realize that this will all pay-off in the long term. The most agonizing aspect of this construction has been the final details. They’ve dragged on now for months including landscaping and getting power to the newly installed street lights. I can’t help but think that more efficient construction & better planning would have made our neighborhood better lit and could possibly have avoided this.

Nice Lights. Would be even nicer if they worked!

Lessons Learned

I sit hear writing this blog to document and sort out with myself what happened, alleviate my frustrations and perhaps a bit of self-therapy. I’ve stopped walking my dog in the evenings and for now, sadly, we have let the criminals win.

Emeryville seems to have money for development but apparently nothing left over to protect the citizens that live here? I can’t completely vouch for the accuracy of this site but it portrays a staggering account of the cities failures. I get no enjoyment  bad-mouthing my City because I do like it here and don’t have any immediate plans to leave but it’s hard to have any confidence in the police when they react the way they did. Emeryville is a small city with money and a strong corporate infrastructure. How many more incidents like mine is it going to take to intensify their efforts … or is it going to take a something worse happening?

Follow up to this Story

After forwarding this post to the city and the EPD, I was contacted a few days later by the Detective who explained that he and the chief of police had gone to the suspected Richmond house to investigate. He told me that the house was unoccupied and there were no signs of forced entry. The previous residents listed were a hispanic Family that did not meet my description. Perhaps the criminals were squatting there. Again we had hit a dead end in the case and I was ready to give up and move one … until by chance I was watching the local news and this story broke:

While I could not describe anything distinct about my robbers besides their physique’s, something overcomes you when you actually see them. Mario Whitty & Keiarris Hall were the guys and I was sure of it. I informed my detective of this but essentially I had “disqualified” myself when I testified that I didn’t think I could identify them. I also followed up with a Berkeley detective to provide any information that might be helpful in making a case against them. I never heard back from them. Although these thugs will never be accountable for my crime according to our justice system, I rest assuredly that they’ll be in jail for a long time for their other crimes.

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