With Big Festival Crowds, the Petty Criminal Element is Inevitable

[NOTE: The following is a TRUE story. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. OK, and maybe a little added embellishment for a pinch of spice…]

We are starting the last day of One Spark (www.beonespark.com), an incredible, five-day, crowdfunded art & technology festival in Jacksonville, Florida. Nearly 500 Creators showcase their talents in hundreds of Venues scattered throughout a multi-block area of  Downtown.

The crowd turnout and the festival itself have gone way beyond my expectations. It definitely looks like a success and I am sure it will become an anticipated yearly event.

The public has been very enthusiastic and there seems to be an undercurrent of positive energy running throughout the event. But with big crowds, the numbers inevitably predict a petty criminal element and yesterday it touched me…

A good friend and fellow Creator was set up in a busy street Venue. Friday his expensive camera and two lenses were quietly lifted from his backpack which was under a small table that held his business cards and promotional material.

I felt terrible about it when he told me the story. “It’s OK,” he told me with a big smile, “It was my fault for not being more vigilant and I am not going to let this bring my spirits down.”  This attitude echoed the positive spirit and energy both of us experienced from day one of the festival.

On the other hand, I took note of this unfortunate incident and rather than store my iPad and camera under the table at my One Spark space in Southlight Gallery, I moved the gear to the back corner of a studio / office in the rear of the gallery. The studio door remained open but most people instinctively knew the space was off-limits and generally avoided walking in.

I used my iPad throughout the day and each time I carefully put it back in the out-of-sight corner in the studio not far from my exhibit. Near closing time, I noticed a suspicious, lone, white male in his late 30’s walk past me adjusting his clothing as if he were hiding something. A gut feeling and a little bit of [admitted] profiling made me feel uneasy. He didn’t look like someone interested in art and he was probably here for another reason…

I walked into the studio to check on my iPad. It was gone. I picked up my bag and noticed how much lighter it was. Something else was missing as well – my camera.

I ran to catch up with my “suspect”. He was leaving the gallery and chose to take the stairs instead of the elevator. I followed him while I pulled out my iPhone and opened up the Find My iPhone App which uses GPS technology to track misplaced iPhones, iPads & iPods. Apple’s iCloud servers rejected my password several times and my luck was running out. “Hey dude,” he turned his head as we descend the stairs, “you havin’ a good night?” “Sure am,” I answered with an air as if I knew what he was up to. My password was rejected for a fourth or fifth time.

He walked out the front door and crossed Main Street. A policeman was parked and standing by his patrol car at the foot of the bridge which was closed to traffic. My suspect continued across Bay Street. I told the policeman about my situation and he called the man back over. The officer was polite to the man and asked him for some identification. The man gave the policeman his driver’s license.

“Do you still live at this address?”

“No, I am staying at a homeless shelter a few blocks over.”

My password continued to be rejected. The policeman asked the man more questions before coming over to me . He told me that he could not hold him unless I could positively locate  the iPad on his person via GPS. I told him my password was not cooperating and I really wasn’t sure if he was the culprit to begin with. I went back inside the gallery and called Apple to get my password reset. I then logged onto the Find My iPhone App and saw that my iPad was located. It was a few blocks over on Monroe Street. I ran outside to see if the policeman was still there.

The officer called dispatch and requested another patrol car to ride by and help me. Friend and fellow Creator P.J. Ronzoni came down from the gallery. She mentioned a relative with a high position in the JSO to the police officer. I had not noticed P.J.’s face until I looked over as she was explaining things; her face had been painted by one of the artist Creators in the gallery and the butterfly design across her eyes somehow took away from her credibility as someone connected to the inside of the police force. I suppressed  my gut laughter into a barely noticeable snicker. P.J. stayed with me while I waited for the second policeman. It soon became evident that the police were too busy Downtown and this might take longer than expected.

Find My iPhone, the App that tracks an iPad or iPhone via GPS.

Find My iPhone, the App that tracks an iPad or iPhone via GPS.

The iPad looked like it was now in a vehicle and moving quickly over the Hart Bridge. By the time the signal got to the corner of Beach & Southside Blvd., the police officer suggested I get in my car and follow the signal; wait until it stops and call the police from another less busy zone. “They will be able to better help you over there,” he explained. P.J. suggested that we go back in the gallery to find Tom Woods (that’s with an ‘s’ ) and Kyle Murray – both friends and artist One Spark Creators – to see if they would ride with me. On our way back into the gallery, we passed Barb Wire: “Where are we going for dinner?” she asked. P.J. explained that we were on our way to track down my iPad. “Oh! I love a good caper – count me in as well,” Barb said with excitement in her voice. Somehow her painted face took away from the sleuth atmosphere that was building…

We found Tom & Kyle. They were game. Katrina, a gallery intern, lent me her iPhone charger as my battery charge was down to 20% and falling fast due to the GPS. Barb volunteered to drive and the five of us took off in the direction of the Hart Bridge. I had the suspect tracked on my iPhone and borrowed Kyle’s iPhone to track ourselves when we got into unfamiliar areas. I held the phones together and tried to keep both maps in scale with one another. I tapped the icon to refresh the signal.

“Oh, shit,” I moaned.

“WHAT?” they chimed in unison.

“He’s turned around and headed north on University,” I answered.

“I’ll make a U-turn,” Barb calmly responded. I could tell she was into this. Her normally calm, composed and soft spoken demeanor lent perfectly to her new role as detective / driver.

“But not HERE,” Tom shouted, “We’re sure to attract police now!”

The suspect was headed to Arlington and had a good lead on us. Then, all of a sudden, it looked as if he might be parked on a small residential street across from Jacksonville University. I refreshed the signal various times and confirmed my hunch.

“He’s attempting to fence the goods,” Detective Barb Wire deduced, “let’s park a few blocks away and call the dispatcher. We’ll park in a very public area and avoid going into the residential neighborhood which might attract gunfire…”

Yes, Barb was really into this. We parked while P.J. called the police.

“Hi, this is P.J. Ronzoni. You might know my [relative], _____ ….. well anyway, we are tracking a stolen iPad through GPS on an iPhone and we are on University….”

The dispatcher obviously interrupted her with a question which the rest of us could not hear…

“WHAT? NO! We are NOT drinking nor doing drugs,” P.J. answered, “And NO! No one has been hit!” P.J. was chuckling.

The dispatcher explained to P.J. that she had to ask that question. She also asked if anyone had been hit which she further explained that she had to ask that as well. P.J. relayed the conversation to us and we all laughed at the thought of a fist fight. What we didn’t understand at the time (and later figured out) was that the dispatcher was questioning if any CARS had been hit.

“No, we’re all OK – we just need a backup patrol car,” P.J. was slipping into her new role along with Barb as she described our location, the make and model of our car and the descriptions of the passengers…

The dispatcher told P.J. an officer was on the way. While we waited, we discussed the suspect’s motives and debated driving by the house. We finally all agreed to stay put. I refreshed the signal.

“Oh NO!”

“WHAT?” Everyone chimed in unison.

“He is on the Matthews Bridge headed back Downtown,” I explained. There was a collective sigh from the back seat.

“His contact declined on the sale and he is contemplating lower sales prices for other potentials Downtown,” Barb reasoned as she threw the car into drive an another quick U-turn.

“I don’t know about this,” Tom skeptically  moaned, “are you sure that thing is working properly, Robert?” [Though Tom identifies me as ‘Robert’ I initially thought about being Jack Bauer but then you all knew it was really me – Robert – who wrote this piece so, Robert it is ! ]

“I have to pee,” Kyle piped in, “why didn’t anyone tell me to use the restroom before we left?”  Kyle drew portraits all day and had a sign next to his easel that indicated he would do so – for beer. His talented efforts had paid off…

The skepticism bothered me. I was dragging my friends all over town on a wild goose chase. There was probably no way I would get my camera or my iPad back. I should resign to the idea that they were lost for good.

“OK, if this guy doesn’t stop soon,” I explained, “we’ll head back to the gallery and call it quits; I can wait until the middle of the night when he finally decides to go to bed – to track him. That is, if my iPad battery charge holds up.”

“No,” Barb responded, “we must persist – I think we have him!”

We got downtown and turned south on Liberty Street just as our suspect had minutes earlier. I refreshed my iPhone.

“Oh NO! Not again!”  I cried.

“WHAT?” Everyone in unison chimed.

“He’s headed back over the Hart Bridge!”

“I have to pee…”

“You’ll be OK, Kyle,” P.J. assured, “he’s on to us tracking him!”

“He has no way of knowing we are tracking him,” I countered.

“No, but this is standard procedure,” Barb explained,”he knows we have the potential to track him and he needs to keep moving – like a shark – to stay alive. He needs to unload the goods and his luck is not with him in that respect. If he stops, he knows we will zoom in on him. He’ll keep running until he finds that right customer.”

“I have to pee. Isn’t there a 7-11 nearby?” Everyone seemed to ignore Kyle’s plea.

We drove back across the Hart Bridge. I was smart enough now to constantly refresh the signal.

“OK, he’s getting off on Atlantic Blvd. again.”  We were still a good bit behind him. He made several turns then got back on Atlantic and was headed over the river again – on I-95.

“Uh-oh, he’s taking the Acosta Bridge back Downtown!” Our suspect headed up Broad Street then turned on 5th. We followed until I noticed he was stationary. He was near the intersection of Silver Street.

“OK, Barb, pull up to the corner of Pearl Street which is only one block away from our suspect. Park and turn your headlights off.” Barb pulled all the way up to the intersection next to the stop sign which is NOT how Jack Bauer would have done it but I decided not to say anything. Besides, at this point, we really did need to attract the police.

P.J. called the police: “Hi, it’s me again. [she somehow reminded them again of her relative in the force.] We’re still after that iPad and we think we have him located and stationary on the corner of 5th and Silver. We are at 5th and Pearl, one block west.” The dispatcher told her a patrol car was on the way.

“Alright, the stakeout begins,” I sighed.

“Where are the doughnuts?” Tom chuckled.

“It’s possible we might have a visual on the suspect,” Barb’s voice was almost to a whisper.

“Let’s drive by and see if we can get a tag number,” P.J. suggested.

“No!” Barb answered, “too- risky: his contacts are probably armed to the T and ready for anyone nosing into their business. We are safe right here.”

“Is that a car with its headlights on up a block? Is that him?” I was excited that we possibly had him in sight. I switched from the map image to the satellite  image. There was a vacant lot on that corner then a large house that seemed to be where I saw the car.

“Robert, your car headlights are merely someone’s front steps’ lights,” Tom deadpanned.

“Now is the time for all of us,” Barb began,  “as artists to really hone in our visual skills to record every minute piece of evidence before us as it will pay off when we need it the most. It is possible he’ll get away but if we are able to get his description, the car make, the tag number…” Barb was waxing detectively. She really was into this….

“Hey, do you think it would be cool to pee in those bushes over there?” Kyle’s question prompted Tom to look over into the darkness.

“Uh-oh,” Tom said, “we got spectators and they are wondering what the hell we are doing.” We all looked over and saw a neighbor on his porch – in the darkness – watching us with, I’m sure, a lot of puzzled questions. I looked on the other side of the street we were on and saw more people watching us and most likely wondering what the hell we were doing.

“We’re attracting way too much attention,” I announced to the group.

Though our lights were off and it was quite dark, the two iPhones were putting out an enormous amount of attention-getting light. And the reflections from my reading glasses were adding to the problem.

“I can fix that,” Barb said as she dropped two pairs of sunglasses over the two iPhones. We all laughed.

“This laughing is not helping my situation,” Kyle sighed.

Barb was the first to see the two police patrol cars arrive: “Backup is here. Good – we’ve got two.”

They pulled up to us and got out of their cars. Barb rolled down her window and the two of us began to explain. It was a pretty straightforward situation but I got a feeling they weren’t quite following us. They stepped aside and consulted among themselves. There were three officers. They were all very young and I figured lack of technological savvy was not an issue. Barb turned and whispered to us with an embarrassed smile:

“They’re probably wondering who this crazy bitch with the painted face is.”

The officers walked back to our car. I explained that the suspect was only a block away. I showed them the satellite image and figured it was one of two houses. I asked if they wanted to take my phone or should I ride with them. They told us to follow them in our car.

“You will have to realize,” one of the officers spoke to me, “that if we knock on one of the doors, ask if they have an iPad and they say ‘no’, we can do nothing further without a warrant.” I told them I was aware of that. Actually, I already was at the personal conclusion that my iPad and camera were long gone. I just wanted to see how far this could go.

We followed the police down to the next block. Excitement was running throughout our car. Kyle even forgot about the pressure on his bladder….

The police stopped just past the intersection of Silver Street. We drove past and parked 10 yards or so in front of them. I got out and walked towards them. The police officers had spotted a man sitting in a parked car and were questioning him. I caught only bits of what they were saying:

“Sir, do you have an iPad in your possession?”

“I knew it was stolen,” he yelled out. As P.J. later laughed, he was singing out like a canary. No tough detective work necessary with this guy!

The officers asked him to get out of the car. The suspect was in the middle of a phone call while talking to the police:

“Hey, baby, let me call you back. No, I can’t talk right now, let me call you back. No, I promise I will. Let me get back with you later, OK baby?”

The officer in charge turned to me and told me to get back in the car – there might be trouble. I obliged.

Once back in the car, Kyle, P.J., Tom, Barb & I all had our heads careened towards the rear as we watched the activity unfold.

The police pulled a large doughnut box from the suspect’s car. One of them pulled a camera from the box.

“I’ll be damned! That’s my camera! I’m pretty sure it is!” I put two and two together and realized that it certainly wasn’t my camera transmitting the signal – it was my iPad – therefore, everything is retrieved! My iPad had to be there as well. We were so lucky they got this guy in a car and not inside a house.

The suspect claimed he bought the camera and iPad for $10. He insisted he did not steal it. The five of us got a glimpse of him and did not recognize seeing him in the gallery earlier that evening. The police questioned our exact moves and times of those moves to determine whether or not he stole the merchandise. Though he might not be guilty of stealing it – as the lead officer emphasized – buying an expensive camera and iPad for $10 proves you are knowingly buying stolen property. The police explained to us that if he was suspected of stealing, he would be charged with grand theft. Instead, he would be arrested and booked for possession of stolen property.

I asked the lead officer to let me know of any other items found. I was aware of the camera and iPad but wasn’t sure if anything else was missing.

“Yes, there was another camera in his possession,” he answered.

“Another camera!” P.J. asked, “What does it look like?” The officer described the camera.

“That’s MY camera!” P.J. shrieked in amazement. She didn’t even realize it was missing.

The police went back to processing their criminal. We sat in the car and talked about how incredible the evening’s events had been. We started around 9 p.m. and now it was well past 11.

“OK, I am going to be up all night writing this story. Tomorrow it will be on FaceBook and WordPress,” I told my talented posse.

“Absolutely NOT,” Barb said emphatically, “Alexander will not let me live this down. He will be pissed. No, I was not here tonight.”

“Don’t worry, I will use aliases.” While we waited on the police, we thought of clever names for the purpose. Barb came up with her own which she seemed to like a lot. “Alright, I’m in,” she beamed.

We watched a man exit the front door of the house where the police were parked in front of. He carried a large, plastic garbage bag and walked to the rear of the house. His eyes followed all activity as he quietly slipped out of sight.  He reappeared, got into a car and drove off. We all speculated he was hiding stolen merchandise.

“Should we ask the police if they saw him?” P.J. asked.

“No, these guys are on top of the situation. They don’t miss a trick.” I answered.  [We later asked and they did not see him leave. They didn’t seem concerned though.]

We wondered if our cameras and iPad would be confiscated for evidence.

The lead police officer returned and asked P.J. and me to sign statements claiming we  received our possessions back. I thanked the officer and told him that earlier that evening I had no hopes of retrieving my camera and iPad. “This is pretty amazing,” I told him.

“Yes, you would be surprised how stupid some of these criminals are: they steal cars with iPads or iPhones in them and then we simply track the cars and arrest them. We have recovered a lot of stolen cars this way. They just don’t catch on.”

“You probably know my [relative], ______? ” P.J. asked the officer.

“Yes, mam, I do – but not personally. That is way above and beyond my level,” he smiled.

The police officer told us we were free to go.

The police headed to jail with their catch. We headed back to the gallery.

“How about that dinner?” I asked my brilliant posse.

“Can we stop to pee first?” Kyle pleaded.

The moral of this story is quite simple: No matter how wonderful a public event may be, there will always be the bad element. Bad things will happen. The best thing to combat this element is with common sense and vigilance. Don’t set up situations for these things to happen. Cover your ass. Keep your eyes open. And enjoy the show. Oh, and a little perseverance never hurts…

[UPDATE: The thief was convicted of possession of stolen property and, probably due to his active and violent past, was sentenced to 8 years in prison.]

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