Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chasing a Library Thief!

Not Your Usual Patron...or Blog Post!

Well, I wonder if this is something that should be taught in library school: how to chase someone who has stolen something from your library--or from another patron? Like "Thief Chasing 490B--Lab Session held in Gymnasium." It's difficult to know, but I can't actually say that this person was a patron, per se. So here's the story...

Back in December 2009, a suspicious character stole a laptop from a seminary student in our library. I say "suspicious," because the person was young (an adolescent), had odd clothes on, and a dyed-red mohawk, partly covered by a "hoodie." But most suspicious of all was the person's fleeting glances, all around, and constant, leading library staff to investigate. Nothing came of this investigation, apparently. And when no one was looking, and while a student's laptop was unattended, he snatched it up.

The student whose computer was stolen, had just come back, because she had a bad feeling about leaving her stuff unattended. Just as she returned, she saw the "perp" run off and out the security doors, setting off the alarms. She ran after him down the street, but he was too fast. Shortly after, the police, facility management, library staff, and others had assembled on the first floor of the library, and were attempting to get the story for the police report. It was chaotic; the information was unclear; one person thought it was a woman; another a man; they didn't know what the person was wearing. The general characteristics of a crime--everyone sees everything and nothing; and then nothing matches. The rest of the afternoon was spent clearing up information among different groups, including the police departments of the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago: apparently, the agencies don't really "talk to one another," instead it is up to the victim of the crime to contact both agencies separately. This is not so much a criticism, but a poised moment of shock and reflection upon this curious anomoly of Chicago beaurocracy. I helped out the student, to navigate through the "311" call and other issues. One of our IT guys came over and helped me unearth the digital trail on one of the computers that the "perp" was using. We not only discovered what the person had been looking at--and that those interests included various forms of graphically lewd images and disturbing pornographic sites, but we also discovered the person's likely name! "Lawrence Coleman" had left his digital imprint!--and an email account, which he'd logged into. The victim of this crime had even written dear "Lawrence" (that's really the name!) an email demanding the computer back. Of course, we can all likely guess that Mr. Coleman never came by and apologized for his actions, along with the Mac laptop. "Oh, so sorry: I thought it was mine!" I gave this information to the police, hoping to hear something back at a later time.

And then, at the end of the day, we all felt a sense of vulnerability and violation, and a bit of anger. "How could someone rob someone in a library--OUR library!?" We're a seminary library, and one would think it a safe haven for students. Apparently not!

A month passed. It should have been a quiet morning of the first week back after Christmas break. Another suspicious character appeared in the library. This time two of our library staff members asked the person if he were a student, but somehow, whatever response was given, he remained in the library...red-mohawk and all! I was not there. I'd gone off to lunch. And, you guessed it: bam! This time a purse was stolen. I did more digital sleuthing: and again, I found more traces of "Lawrence Coleman," including more porn and another email account. This was given to the police. After the second incident, we had meetings about safety, which resulted in "putting signs up." But frankly, I'm not too sure this was even a worthy effort to stunt the thievery. Thieves don't care about signs. They probably don't even read them! Everyone was fairly certain that this was the end of the "crime wave." Not one week later though, came the true action of this story. It was early one morning at the library. I went to the first floor to look for something. Just then, I passed within inches of a young man, the red-mohawk man! He was there, casing the joint. He went swiftly up the stairs. I followed quietly. When he'd gone out the library's main doors, I told the student worker at the desk to call security; I hit the alarm buttons calling the police; I ran to my co-workers and told them what had happened, then grabbed my coat, and ran outside. Immediately, I looked out the window and already saw a swarm of the facilities crew moving down the street in hot pursuit. We ran and ran. The University Police were speeding around in their cruisers. I ran around for more than an hour, and it was in the cold of a January morning. We had lost him. And most of us who were running were over 35, some twenty years older. This young thief was a mere sapling of youth, sprinting at gazellish speeds. But then, about 45 minutes into the gone-cold chase, some of the group was walking down an alley. The first and last photos on today's blog show the area where we were walking at that moment: a house being renovated with a barbed wire fence. I caught glimpse of him behind this green-tarp covered fence. There were shouts and we once again were in pursuit. I ran after him, finding myself stuck at the end of another alley--this one above, with a 6-foot wire gate. But within a few seconds, I realized I'd somehow climbed the gate and fence, and sat up in the air wondering how I'd get down on the other side!

"I'm going to break my neck, or at least my leg," I thought. Of course, I had to get down. I jumped, and was fine. But then I tried to run, but was exhausted. I turned the corner to look down the street and found nothing, absolutely nothing. He had jumped over a much smaller picket fence, something only about a foot tall, and had bounded through the snow and brush here. This was the front yard of the house, which was being renovated, and where he'd been hiding behind just a few moments before. And now, he'd disappeared once again! It was unbelievable!
I walked around, and looked at the freshly trodden snow. I tried not to disturb it, attempting to pull a Miss Marple or investigate like an old British PI. It looked like he had sneakers on, but it was rather hard to tell. So, I took a photo of the tracks, both from around the corner and closer up.

In this image, you can see that the tracks in the middle were created with great strides, leaping across and through the wet snow. You can see the space between them and the slide marks at the base of the foot print itself. But this did nothing more than give me a sense of what the "perp's" footwear style might be. It barely gave me a direction to follow. The prints went cold. I looked behind bushes, under cars, next to porches. Nothing. He was gone. Disappeared.
Not a thing had turned up. We gave our reports to the police. I handed over the information I gathered regarding the digital trail of Mr. Lawrence Coleman. And things were quiet after that. Our policies on entry really haven't changed. Anyone can walk in off the streets, but we reserve the right to see if you are doing "real" work--as a student, faculty, staff, minister, or lay person doing work in religion or theology; and if you are not a bona fide researcher, you may be asked to leave.

And so--months later!--as for the case and the likes of our library thief...nothing has come of this. "Lawrence Coleman" is still out there. Some have said that "even if they caught this guy, what could they do to him?" The circumstances have not been such that he'd likely be charged with a crime. Even though he's stolen over $2,000 in personal items from students, he'd likely walk free, unscathed on his record. The police said they'd even found a record of someone by the same name, who was caught stealing from a nearby high school. But that doesn't mean its the same person. And so, our young boy with the red-dyed mohawk walks free.

I wonder if Marylin Johnson, author of "This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All" ever thought about this one? She talks about all sorts of crazy and true tasks and working issues that librarians do, act out, perform, or whatever. But chasing thieves? We are in an urban environment--at least that's what everyone says is the reason for this. (Though, I'd bet there's some crime in rural areas too!) Anyhow, so goes the super hero myth...on Johnson's front cover is an image of a caped super hero librarian (a woman in this case) flying off with book or computer-book in hand. Little did she know. Admittedly, I was a tad embarrased by all the attention, and people saying "who knew librarians were super heroes!?" Awww, come on now! We're just trying to protect our students from getting things stolen! We're all super heroes. We're just doing our jobs. Perhaps, the better moniker is "super fool" on my part. What the heck was I thinking, chasing a library thief!? Well, let's just hope this doesn't happen again. Or else, Marilyn Johnson may have to write another chapter.

1 comment:

  1. Lesson Learned -- I hope!! Don't ever chase a thief down an alley in Chicago!! Leave that to the cops. What if the guy had a gun??

    Entertaining. I really like your blog..