It was a Wednesday night in Surfers Paradise. I had finally, after searching for a week, found a place where I could connect my laptop to the internet and upload the photos to my website. I was leaving Thursday morning so it seemed a good enough way to spend the evening. Well, not really, but it was overdue. So back I went to the Sleeping Inn hostel to get my cables and laptop. Everybody was there, getting ready to go out for the old Wednesday night pubcrawl and urging me to come out, too. I was in Australia partly to loosen up a bit and have more fun, and this seemed like a good time to not do the computer nerd routine, but then again my site was (is) really out of date and I wanted to do this now rather than later when it would fall irrevocably behind. But, eating, I spilled something on my shirt. Without really thinking about it, I changed shirts into my button up 'going out' shirt and my subconscious made the decision for me. So I said, what the heck, and got on the pub crawl. It was a good night, as by now I knew my roommates pretty well and that always helps. Only two stayed behind from our building, Johno, a kiwi, in the room next door, and Rob, from Ireland, who was in our room. Johno had no money and Rob had work in the morning. I got back from the pub crawl at 2:30AM and went straight to sleep.
The next morning I woke up, showered, and started to pack. "Hmmm, I thought I left my wallet in my backpack... oh well, it'll turn up". Then I thought I'd charge my phone while I packed since I'd be on the road. My charger's usually in a blue bag of cables, which I also couldn't find. I looked in the closet, on the shelf, under my bed, everywhere I could think to. Then I thought maybe I put it in with my laptop even though that was unlikely as it doesn't really fit in that compartment. I opened to check and my stomach dropped. My laptop was gone. And my wallet. My iPod. My watch. My camera. All my photos, videos, etc. Even my backups of my photos, videos, etc. Other things were there, however, including the pack itself and a few things that would be no good to noone. Whoever had stolen it had gone through a lot of time sifting through and picking out what they wanted. There was a $200 pair of sunglasses beside my backpack untouched and a camera sitting on the floor worth about $500. I woke everyone up in the room and nobody else was missing anything. Then I searched their stuff, and our entire unit. It didn't make sense that it was someone from outside. Someone from outside would come in, grab the bag and whatever else they could as fast as they could, and get the hell out. No, whoever it was knew that they weren't going to be interrupted, which would be fine if the thief knew we were all out on the pubcrawl, but of course Rob had stayed back. And, given that nobody else’s stuff was touched and mine was scavenged, they knew what they were going to find.
I called the police, cancelled my cards, called home, and tried to think clearly over the rising nausea. I felt sick and actually did find an alley on my walk back from the payphone to throw up. The stress and distress I felt were overwhelming. I have special software on my laptop that, when it's reported stolen, if it's connected to the internet it logs the IP address (that is, where they are which can be traced to an actual street address with police help). It also takes photos of the person using the computer and uploads screenshots of what they are doing on the computer. I called Orbicule, the company that makes the software, and I let them know my laptop was stolen as well. At this point the police showed up and wrote down what was missing for the insurance I don't have. They also wrote down everyone's name in the room except, of course, for Rob, who was at work, and Johno who started his job this morning. The two prime suspects, in other words. Their considered opinion was that it was a B&E because there was a door and a window left open, even though the door to the room was locked (I double checked before leaving) and had no signs of forced entry - and it's on the second floor, AND aside from a ladder there's no way to get to the window. Oh, and the fence they supposedly hopped to avoid the security camera? Well, I’m not exactly out of shape and I had problems with two free hands getting over it. Hmm.
The obvious problem with things being stolen by a backpacker is where they keep their new acquistions. Given that I'd searched everyone's stuff, the only other thing I could think of was cars. I searched them too; I was even waiting outside when Rob got home to search his van. Nothing. I was far too stressed to be thinking clearly and so I tried to relax myself and remember that life went on just fine the last time this happened in Dublin. I made baked apples and shared them with everyone, knowing that any of them might be the one that did it, but it gave me something to do and, I hoped, would make the thief feel all the more guilty. In fact, they pretty much all agreed that it looked like an inside job when we talked about it. I fleshed out the night with them - I was the first one back (aside from those that stayed behind), and the others made their way in not too long after me. The hostel staff, Rob, and the police were the only ones who seemed to think it was an outside theft. We tried to think of things I could do to get it back. Rob mentioned that there was a way to track if a laptop went on the internet (obviously I was all too aware) and called his friend to find out. "You have to have special software installed to track it that way," he later told me. My face fell. "I've never heard of that before." "So you don't have it installed?" "No, how could I? I didn't even know that was possible. I don't know why it wouldn't just come on the computer." At this point, he said to me something that would become pivotal in this. "Well," he said, "you have to believe in karma. Whoever would do something like this will have it come around. It might not get you your laptop and pictures back, maybe they’ll get hit by a bus or something else will happen to them all you’ll never know, but maybe it helps a bit to know that this will come back to get them." Oh, yeah. What goes around comes around, alright. I insist on it.
Johno came back later and went out to buy a carton of beer - in spite of the fact that he had no money to come out the night before. When he heard about the theft, he also showed no concern that his stuff might be missing, though he also had a laptop, and was pretty blasé. That said, the guy working reception mentioned to me that Rob hadn't paid his rent in a while and had said he'd be paying it that morning before he left for work. Still, I couldn't rule out the possibility that it wasn't the neighbours. They were crackheads, after all, and could definitely see right into our room. The next morning they were playing the music quite loudly, so I wandered over casually to see if there was a party and, ostensibly, join in on the fun. I got invited in and had some glances around but the bedroom doors were closed. "Oh, this isn't too bad, what do you pay for a place like this? I'm getting tired of living in hostels... oh really, that's all? ... and how big are the bedrooms? ... wow, that's pretty good. Do you mind if I have a look?" And so it was that I had searched their house and found nothing. I stopped at all the neighbours and asked questions. I didn't have any other ideas I hadn't tried short of following them around, and I still wanted to be trying to sell my car while I waited. So I drove down to Byron Bay early that afternoon, but asked Chris to tell both Rob and Johno when they got back and saw I was gone that I'd gone to the police, they'd found a witness, and should be back any minute with them. Hopefully they'd do something to give themselves away. I mean, if it were me and I knew the police were coming back with a witness any minute, I'd want to be the hell out of there now. I might panic. So might they.
Unfortunately, Chris didn't quite get the reasoning for it and botched the message a bit, so that little scheme didn't bear fruit. I stayed in loose contact with Johno and Rob for a while and decided that short of following one of them around with the car, there was nothing I could do. The laptop might turn up on the internet or it might not, but I couldn't sit around waiting forever. I sold my car and flew to Darwin, making my way from there to Perth over the next month or so. I arrived in Perth on Sunday, October 14th. Tuesday, October 16th I received an email from Orbicule. The laptop had been connected to the internet at 2AM and you can't imagine my disbelief and jubilation at hearing from the laptop a month and a half after it was stolen. Orbicule had also sent the information to the ISP. I did a WHOIS myself and found that the laptop was connected to an Exetel customer's internet connection. Progress! Not only did I have my first lead in over a month, but the fact that the software was still on the laptop meant that - for the moment - whoever was using it hadn't found a way or need to wipe the drive completely.
I immediately called the Surfers Paradise police, even though they’d been CC’d on the email. After all, it had been like pulling teeth to find an external email address and the one I'd been given was for some officer who may or may not have been on duty that day. And, of course, he wasn't. Nor was constable Strang. I explained the situation and told them that this lead was pretty time-sensitive and all I needed was an email to the ISP to get the street address. Only the case officer could do anything, I was told. He was on that evening, so I left a message stating I had information on the whereabouts of the laptop and for him to call me. I then attempted to do some work for the police and called up Exetel myself to see if I could find out the physical location the laptop had been connected. It was difficult to get someone on the phone who understood what I was asking, but when I finally did they told me what I'd expect them to - they were quite happy to give the information to the police but couldn't divulge it to me. There was nothing left for me to do but wait for Constable Strang to come on shift.
Then I got another email. This one contained two screenshots of what the thief was doing on my computer as well as two photos from the built-in iSight camera of the person using my computer. I opened up the screenshots first. One of him creating a user account on YouTube that included a username of roconnor, date of birth, and a postal code that was for Southport/Labrador, a suburb just north of Surfers Paradise. Immediately, I thought "R could stand for Rob, and O'Connor definitely sounds Irish." I also noticed that he had kept my background the same, a picture of some soldier crabs in the Whitsundays. And the recycle bin was full! Maybe he had deleted but not wiped out my stuff. The next screenshot was of him in his email, yahoo.co.uk, which further pointed to Ireland. And then I opened the photo of the thief using the computer. "You son of a bitch," maybe a little loudly for the internet cafe. Definitely Rob. And in the background, photos that appeared to be a hostel, with signs for returning plates, and others for the theme parks in the Surfers Paradise/Gold Coast area. I was convinced he was still there.
I called officer Strang just before 10 and was told that he was on beat, meaning on the streets. I'd left a message for him and told them this and asked that he please return my call regardless of the hour when he got back for lunch. He didn't. It went on like this for a few days, with me slowly getting to know the ins and outs of the Surfers police. A Perth officer mentioned that I should ask for the OIC (officer in charge) and at last I had someone, John Kubanko willing to talk about it. I explained the software and he sounded quite excited about this new way of catching crooks and promised me he'd look into it right now. At last!! Progress. I got a phone call from Sgt. Malone about 20 mins later and got another email address to send the information to and filled her in on the details. And that was it for almost a week. Admittedly, the Indy races were on that weekend and they were busy, but still I couldn't get any response at all, not even from John. I sent faxes and everything. Next week I managed to reach John and he explained about indy and said he'd look into it to see what had been done. He called back to get the correct spelling of my last name and I heard nothing and couldn't reach him for a few days as he was off.
You can imagine my frustration, knowing that this little blip of hope was fading and probably gone because of some cars driving fast around Surfers. I called several times a day, and asked every relevant police department to look up the IP address for me, even back home. And I even knew the guy's identity, had a phone number for him, birthday, you name it. I'd tried everything I could think of and was brainstorming a way for some stranger to call him and discern his location without tipping him off. A girl he supposedly met at the bar? A call from "VISA" asking him to verify that he was making a purchase with his card on eBay - with the usual verification questions like, say, "billing address". All of the ideas risked tipping him off that I was onto him and the latter would probably be considered fraud even if I didn't do anything with it besides go after him. And go after him I would. I'd been in Perth for almost two weeks and divided my time between job hunting and Rob hunting with no progress whatsoever. I’d had my life on hold and was tired of leaving it to people who didn’t seem interested in crime fighting, so I took matters into my own hands. I booked a cheap flight to Sydney on Saturday October 27, as further tracking on the IP made it appear that the laptop may have been in Sydney, and regardless, I had to fly through Sydney to get back to Surfers. I had called a few hostels in Sydney trying to find out if any of them sold theme park tickets or if they even had posters up for theme parks and most of them had no idea what I was talking about, which I took as a pretty good sign that, no, they don't. He was in Surfers. I also called every hostel on the Gold Coast and none of them had wireless nor Rob O'Connor registered. I was worried this might tip him off, but I was at the point where I had to take chances. Still, I didn’t take the risk of calling Sleeping Inn, as I was fairly convinced he was in cahoots with some of the staff. Even if not, he was good friends with them and that was enough of a risk.
I also called someone else that had stayed in the room with me the night my stuff was stolen and that I trusted – Chris. It turned out Rob had just called him a week ago, out of the blue, and they’d not been able to talk long. So Chris called him back with a list of questions I had for him, subtly woven into the conversation. He couldn’t find out an exact address, but it turned out he was working in Gladstone, a small city an hour south of Rockhampton and about 12 hours north of Surfers Paradise. He also got the impression, though nothing was explicitly said, that Rob came back to Surfers from time to time and even to Sleeping Inn. The trail was warming.
I arrived in Sydney at midnight on Saturday and caught up with Diane over some wine. White wine, this time, just in case... I caught up with my friend Julian the next afternoon and the following day (Monday) went around to the Apple stores notifying them that a stolen Mac was possibly in the area and showing photos to see if anyone recognized him. The manager of NextByte promised to have the photos sent to every store in Australia (pretty good of them) and then I'd done everything I could in Sydney. I booked a flight for that evening up to Surfers Paradise.
On the shuttle bus to Surfers Paradise from the Coolangatta airport, I met a Canadian girl named Chelsea who I told my story to. We met for pancakes the next morning after I stopped in at the police station and found out that John Kubanko, the Office in Charge (OIC) was out of the office until around 2PM that afternoon. The two of us went to scout the Sleeping Inn hostel. I know that Rob has a lot of friends there and I didn't want to risk walking around, being recognized, and tipping anyone off. I'd shown her the photos and so she was going to look to see if she recognized either Rob or Mr. X or the background of the images where the laptop had been connected. Meanwhile, I went down the street to the neighbouring hostel and showed them the photos. The woman there recognized Mr. X as an employee of Sleeping Inn who drove their limo and also worked at Shooters, though she didn't have a name. Bingo! This was solid information and evidence that Rob was definitely in the area from time to time and, if Mr. X had bought the laptop, he was quite easily found as well. I met back with Chelsea as she finished her reconnaisance.
"You can see it from here, you know," she whispered, apparently as nervous as I was about tipping someone off. "See what?" "The place where they connected the laptop. Look up there, second floor, on the balcony." And sure enough, a life-sized poster of Shrek 4D, all the signs, everything I'd seen in the photos. The only thing missing was a fat ugly Irishman sitting and looking stupid. But I knew now we'd get him. I might not recover the stuff, but Rob O'Connor's days were numbered. Not for the first time, I found myself saying, “You son of a bitch!” too loudly. We went back to meet John at the police station and he ushered us upstairs into his office. I thought I might have to do some work to convince him that the police needed to handle this, but he was apologizing from the start. I brought him up to speed on all my investigation and evidence and he agreed that we now had plenty of evidence to nail Rob (and offered me a job). We were to come back at 4:00 where we'd meet a new detective he was going to assign to the case, one who had a computer background and had even installed this software on his own laptop.
We were back at 4:00 where we met with constables Adam Allanson and Michael Denien, Adam being the computer expert and Mike the guy I'd finally emailed all the evidence to. I brought them up to speed and they loved every minute of the story. All the while, police officers were coming and checking out all the evidence I'd been accruing and asking questions about this software and whether they could install it on their computers. I filled out and signed a report with Adam while Chelsea helped the slightly less savvy Mike create a proper report on their new computer system, linking in the photographic evidence and so on. We discussed strategy, thinking that a dual sting of Rob's place in Gladstone and Sleeping Inn was the best way to get both Rob and my things and then took a break for dinner. Chelsea and I went out for dinner to celebrate - at last, this was what I'd been wanting from the day it was stolen and now I knew an investigation was underway. Then I went back to the police station to meet the detectives at 8 and we talked a bit more. They were going to go to the hostel and see what information they could find on Rob O'Connor's whereabouts, since we didn't have an exact address in Gladstone.
I didn't hear back from them that night, which might be just as well, as Chelsea was soon to leave Australia and had never had goon. We partied with the Germans in my room and went through 4L. I left a message with them to ring me the next afternoon and I went shopping with Chelsea in the morning, thinking we might see a movie. There was nothing really intriguing playing, and so she went back to her hostel and I to mine. I was just coming up to the Islander (the hostel I was at and a much better one than Sleeping Inn for an extra $1/night) when my phone rang. Adam wanted me at the police station ASAP. I turned and speed-walked to the station wondering what it was but thinking they must have got a lead on Rob's location in Gladstone and were about to commence with the dual-sting operation. He met me in the lobby and we got into the elevator.
With a poker face that could take the pot in a high-stakes Vegas match, he said to me, "We've got your stuff." Just like that. Absolutely serious. It had to be a trick, I just didn’t know why. “Uh, what?” “We’ve got your stuff back. Some of it. It’s upstairs.” I laughed nervously. I’d spent two weeks on the phone trying to get someone to even send an email and then the day after I show up in person they’ve got it back? “Are you testing me? Am I supposed to have some sort of reaction here?” And the elevator door opened, and there was my blue bag of cables, my computer in its distinctive case, my camera, all sitting there on the desk. I think that shocked is the only way to describe my reaction to this. And then all of a sudden I was meeting a sea of people I’d talked with on the phone weeks ago. Sgt. Malone, the guy at reception, everyone was coming in to meet me and see if it was indeed mine. There was no doubt from the moment I saw it. No iPod, true, and my wallet long gone, but there is was sitting in front of me. I really don’t remember everything that happened in the police station other than that Adam was in a rush as he had Rob in the other room for interrogation. I didn’t ask to see him. I didn’t want to. I left and about halfway down the street it hit me, spreading a big smile and causing me to jump in the air and shout some random noise, to onlookers’ amusement.
And so the story ends on Halloween with one giant trick or treat. I had a bit more of a chance to talk with Adam later that evening. They had enquired at the hostel the previous night and found that Rob was coming back the very next day to Surfers Paradise. So they were there when he arrived. “You’re Rob O’Connor?”, officer Allanson asked? “Yeah.” “My name is Constable Karma, and you’re under arrest.” I don’t know if he really said that or not, I don’t really care. It’s what he will say in any story I ever tell. Rob had the stuff on him and confessed not to stealing it, but to knowing it was mine and stolen and keeping it for himself – and deleting my photos. Riiiight. That’s why my iPod headphones were in my computer case. Plus all the coincidence of him being the one in my room. Unlucky for him, the penalty is the same for possession as it is for actually stealing it. And speaking of possession, when they got his confession, he suddenly had to use the toilet. Another, more thorough search turned up some drug and drug implements, which he also was charged with. “Karma really bit me in the ass, this time,” he told the officers as they pulled a baggie of narcotics from an inner-leg pocket. Of course it did, Rob. I insist on it.