The Saga of the Stolen Phone

I know some of you have known some of this, but now that it looks like it's not going to progress further, I guess I can tell the whole frustrating, annoying, infuriating story.

We really aren't ones for big expensive phones. I use an iPhone because it is necessary for my job, and my old iPhone was about five years old. Man had acquired a smartphone two years ago; Boy was using an old-fashioned dumbphone. But as Man's contract came up for renewal, we decided to combine all of us into one family plan, and trade in our aging phones for a trio of shiny new iPhones on an installment plan.

The menfolk were inordinately excited, especially Boy. He had never had a smartphone, and immediately began filling it up with goofy games and madly texting his friends. I was looking forward to helping him use it for organization, for time management and tracking his school assignments. At least, that was the working plan.

Only a few days later, Boy had his theatrical debut in Les Miserables, performed at the Wildey Theater. He took a lot of photos backstage with his friends in the cast, all on his phone. My folks came into town for the show, and the next day they treated us to a Cardinals game.

In the fourth inning or thereabouts, Boy needed to go to the restroom. He was gone for more than two innings, and I began texting him to please return to our seats. He eventually arrived, and more upset than I've seen him in a long time.

He told me that he had left the phone on a toilet paper dispenser. As he was leaving, he saw a worker in a stadium uniform entering his stall. About ninety seconds later, he realized he'd left his awesome new phone in the bathroom. He returned, and it was gone.

Remembering the stadium worker, Boy went to guest services, assuming that the worker had picked it up and would turn it in. Unfortunately, they didn't have it. So he returned to us, trying not to show how upset he was.

I tried to use Find My iPhone, but it showed nothing. There are two explanations for this: while I thought I had activated it, it was a brand-new phone and I hadn't tested it yet. It's possible I didn't set it up properly. The other possibility: whoever found it turned it off right away.

So we texted the phone, asking whoever had found it to return it to our seats. We searched the bathroom, talked to guest services, reported it to security. Everyone was very nice and apologetic, but said there was nothing they could do.

We were still hopeful - naively so - that the worker had simply picked up the phone and returned to work, planning to turn it in at the end of his shift. We reported it to the stadium's lost-and-found and management, texted it a few more times, but did not immediately call the police. We decided to wait until the morning, and if it had not been returned to the stadium, we would freeze the phone and report it stolen.

Jim was pretty hot under the collar about it. Partly it was the ridiculous expense of the phone, the nicest thing we've yet been able to buy the boy, who has had to live with hand-me-downs and used extras most of his life. We shop at Goodwill and eBay, and "we can't afford it" is a near-daily refrain from me. This was a rare treat, and we had just signed an agreement obligating us to two years of payments on the damn thing - an agreement that is in force even if the phone is stolen or broken, by the way.

Partly it was watching Boy hid his face inside his baseball cap for the last two innings of the game so nobody would see he was trying not to cry. It wasn't the phone as much as those photos, the celebration of his first play. He hadn't even had a chance to back them up.

Jim sent a few texts that were a bit more angry than mine, until I told him to stop. But the next morning, I saw that the phone had sent several texts, received some pics and made a handful of phone calls. Clearly it wasn't going to be returned. So I made a list of the numbers involved and then reported it stolen to Verizon.

That same morning, I got a call from a clerk at a Gamestop in the city. It seems someone had tried to sell the phone to them that morning, and she saw a text from me asking for its return. She noted my number, refused the sale and called me after he left.

This was quite a break, I thought. I reported the theft to the St. Louis Police Department, and they called me back rather quickly. I provided a statement detailing everything I've said so far. I provided the list of phone numbers the thief had contacted, and the name of the Gamestop clerk who said she was willing to testify.

The detective, who was extremely kind, polite and helpful, followed up with the clerk and acquired a surveillance video of the man attempting to sell the phone. The clerk had also saved a copy of his identification.

So, we have the phone numbers, the videotape, the clerk's testimony and the ID of the person attempting to sell stolen property. You'd think that would be enough, eh?

As was related to me, the man who tried to sell the phone was arrested and brought in for questioning. He insisted only that some guys on the Metrolink gave him the phone. He also refused to produce the phone. This was not his first rodeo, according to the detective. "Uncooperative" was the word used.

Stolen phones aren't a big deal. However, the dollar value of a brand-new iPhone is $750. That makes it felony theft under Missouri law, not a petty misdemeanor. The detective told the guy (whose name was never shared with me) that if he produced the phone, it probably would just go away. This did not produce results.

The detective told me that they could not get him on the theft, because there was no proof that he was the one to lift the phone in the first place. That could have been the worker Boy saw, or someone else, and that person could have handed it off in the train as was said. (I have my doubts.) They could attempt to charge him with possession of stolen property, but then they had to prove that he knew the phone was stolen.

I pointed out that the cacophony of texts from us should have been enough of a hint, since iPhones generally don't grow wild on the Metrolink or in Busch Stadium, and that the theft was clear enough to the Gamestop clerk to spur her to call me. So the detective presented it to the state's attorney.

Then came two weeks of silence.

Last week, I got a voicemail from the detective responding to my latest query. He said they had not recovered the phone, and it was unlikely that they would, so I should go ahead and file our insurance claim. That tells me there will be no search warrant, probably no prosecution, and despite the plethora of evidence, he will get away with the phone.

And we get stuck with the $199 "deductible" on the crappy insurance policy that Verizon uses to cover stolen phones.

My frustration has been immense. I'm not angry at the stadium, because we're not sure it was a worker who stole it and it's not their fault anyway. I received a concerned phone call from stadium management apologizing for our experience and asking me to keep them in the loop; if it does turn out that an employee was involved, they want to know about it.

I'm not even angry at the police. The detective was extremely polite and helpful, communicated with me pretty well considering he was also investigating, y'know, murders at the same time. He put a lot of effort into our case, including the arrest and interrogation of the suspect. He made his run at the prosecutors in the suburb where the Gamestop was located rather than the city, figuring we'd have a better chance there.

But none of it seems to matter to whomever was responsible for the prosecution. You have a man caught on videotape attempting to sell stolen electronics worth $750. You have the testimony of the clerk, his identification presented along with the phone, videotape of the attempt, electronic records from Verizon and Apple, and our full cooperation. Surely that would be enough to get a search warrant, at least? In the hopes of recovering the phone? Apparently not.

It certainly has been a learning experience for my son, the inevitable lesson of "life isn't fair and sometimes the good guys don't win." Everyone seems to think that's a good thing. I don't. Sure, he'll take better care of his phone in the future. We have all walked away from our phones at some time or another. It was his terrible luck to do so at the wrong time as someone with sticky fingers came through.

But it's also been eye-opening for me. It's not like I don't know my way around the criminal justice system, but as a reporter, my emotions usually aren't involved (or at least I know how to separate them from the job). My checkbook isn't involved, either.

I cannot imagine the emotions involved for a crime involving physical injury or a more serious violation of our lives. If, for example, it involved the kind of things that my colleagues explored in this series, the frustration and anger we feel would be compounded a thousand times.

This was just a phone. No one hurt us. Not in the ways that really count. But when I remember my son hiding his face in his baseball cap, it's hard for Mama Bear not to feel that fury again.