At the time the plan seemed thrilling, a break from the usual “sorry, safety first” mantra of the authorities. Plus it was backed by the Seattle police, so the feeling was, what could go wrong?
After a Greenwood man was ripped off last month, officers suggested he, the victim, surreptitiously arrange to buy his stuff back from the thief, who had advertised it for sale online. The police would be waiting nearby the buyback spot and would swoop in for a dramatic arrest.
“I felt like I was part of a sting operation,” the man, a web developer in Greenwood, told me.
Except that something went wrong. At the appointed time and place for the sting — 8 p.m. one night last month in the Northgate Mall parking lot — the cops didn’t show.
“I got hung out to dry,” the man says now.
Spoiler alert: Nobody got hurt in the making of this column. We’ll get to what happened in a minute. But in a city where it has become a given that when your stuff gets stolen the police won’t have the resources to help much, acts of amateur vigilantism are becoming increasingly common.
Especially when it’s the police urging you on.
We’ve already had vigilantes who ended up famous, like Seattle’s Bike Batman. He’s the anonymous engineer who makes online offers to buy stolen bikes. But instead of buying them he simply takes them back, returning them to their rightful owners like a real-life superhero.
“Everyone’s Pretty Jealous of Seattle’s ‘Bike Batman’ “ read one headline, about the rush of taking matters into your own hands when the authorities won’t help.
Most theft victims aren’t looking to be heroes; they just want their stuff back. But because stolen stuff has become so easy to track online, the internet has created a generation of amateur detectives.
That’s what happened in this story — within a few hours of someone cutting the lock on a storage shed in a Greenwood condo building and taking $2,500 worth of power tools and sports equipment, the stuff showed up for sale on the marketplace site OfferUp.com. Where it was immediately flagged by the tech-savvy victim.
He called police, and was told they didn’t really have the resources to help. Although surprisingly to him, an officer suggested he try arranging a “buy-bust” meeting, and police could help him with the sting.
So after making an account under a false name on OfferUp, the man contacted the seller to buy his own golf clubs. He and the alleged thief arranged to meet at 7 p.m. in front of the Ram restaurant at Northgate. At the request of the police, the time was later changed to 8 p.m.
“They set the time of the meeting,” the victim told me, speaking of the police. “They were never saying ‘don’t do this.’ “
As a police incident report put it: “(Redacted) was also advised he has the option of setting up an in-person transaction with this seller for his stolen goods and notifying the law enforcement agency of where the transaction will take place to schedule a standby.”
On the big day, the man exchanged eight calls with police, his phone records show, to plan the sting. With only a few minutes to go, he reached a dispatcher who he says told him “there was a call out” for officers but it was now uncertain if they would arrive.
He probably should have retreated, he says, but he “felt like this was going to be the only chance to get him.” Across the parking lot he sized up the alleged thief, who didn’t appear to be armed and was “30 to 40 pounds lighter.”
“I guess I also thought the police might still come,” he told me. “So I went in.”
After some small talk and taking some photographs, he says he came out with it: We both know this is stolen, he says he told the alleged thief. It was stolen from me and I’m taking it back. Then he called 911 right in front of him.
“He got very agitated,” the man recalls. “I had just taken a photo of him, and now I was on the phone with the cops.”
The dispatcher urged him not to make any contact with the man (too late). He asked if the police could please hurry. While they were talking, though, the alleged thief turned and bolted across the parking lot. After a half hour with the police still not there, the man gathered up his old golf clubs and went home.
When I first presented this story to the Seattle Police Department, they pushed back. We wouldn’t suggest a citizen “go meet with the criminal” — the thief could be armed and dangerous, they said. Plus incorporating citizens directly into police operations presents huge liability issues.
But ultimately their own records confirmed it.
“It’s immensely problematic for us,” conceded Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a police spokesman. “He had the promise, or the suggestion, of a police presence, and then that police presence wasn’t delivered.”
Three years ago there was a similar civilian buy-bust sting gone wrong in which the police also didn’t show. But that time the thief pulled a gun on the citizen victim. After that, then-Chief Kathleen O’Toole ordered police to discontinue such setups with citizens unless they were “highly controlled and coordinated investigations by specialized teams and detectives.”
“We needed to have someone assisting him directly,” Whitcomb said of the Northgate parking lot sting. “It’s really an undercover operation, and the premise is, we’ll be there.”
Another civilian who went on one of these stings, a software engineer who lives on north Capitol Hill, said police did come along, eventually, for his scheme to fake-buy his own stolen bike in a QFC parking garage. They swooped in with red lights flashing and “it was awesome,” he says.
But he says it was touch and go.
The cops were delayed so “I kept having to stall,” he told me. “I kept debating — what do I do if the police can’t come? Do I just let this guy skate off with my $2,000 bike — again? Or do I take it back myself and run?
“The police never said ‘don’t do this yourself.’ I got the feeling they don’t have a standard playbook.”
I bet we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing, as online registries to track stolen goods proliferate, such as Bike Index for stolen bikes. To me the police have little choice but to welcome the amateur detective help. But man, they’ve got to show up.
I didn’t name either of the victims in these cases, because the alleged thieves are still out there — and in one case the suspect has a history of assaults. Even in the bike sting where the cops came and made an arrest, in the QFC garage, the suspect was let go from King County jail the next day — despite an outstanding felony charge against him for setting a fire as well as multiple counts of theft.
He was due in court over the summer, but didn’t show.
The software engineer who managed to sleuth back his own bike knows where he is — at least on the internet.
“It’s kind of an obsession of mine,” he told me. “I’m back to tracking his online accounts. He’s got a whole bunch of new stuff for sale that is obviously stolen.”