What I Learned from a Victim and a Criminal
I’ve been saving this story for a while. This is one of the oddest things that’s happened to me. And random stuff happens to me all the time. I find myself in odd places in my work and personal life.
This story takes place in the summer of 2010 to the best of my recollection. At the time I was working for a large university. I was working as an Integrator for the university department in charge of multimedia classrooms. Our department designed, created, and installed smart classrooms.
My particular role was the lowest man on the roster. I was one of the people who got dirty maintaining equipment, going under floors and into ceilings in buildings that date back to the early 1800s. Yes, buildings that were 200 years old.
So no two jobs were exactly the same. There was always some variable we had to work around to bring new technology to aging classrooms.
You Never Know
There’s an untold story for every electrician, HVAC tech, and anyone who has to go into a ceiling for their job. You never know what you’re going to find up there. Maybe you’ll meet a rat or find someone’s tools from the previous job.
I actually once left a tool in a ceiling and found it again several weeks later just sitting up there. There was one classroom drop ceiling on campus that had a Mr. Pibb can that I think dated back to the early 90s if not the 80s.
And we left it there. We actually navigated the room based on where the Mr. Pibb can was. It was a legend, we all knew it was there. But you never know what you’re going to find in a ceiling.
An Odd Discovery
It was on such an occasion that my team had to go do maintenance on a musty classroom. This was a smaller room that was only a single story. The room was tucked out of the way and if you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk right past it.
It was here that I experienced one of the weirdest things on a job.
We had an intern working with us and since he was lower on the totem pole than I was, we sent him up a small ladder to poke his head into the unknown overworld that was the drop ceiling in that room.
My friend Greg and I started working on other aspects of the room. That’s when the intern called to us that he found a purse tucked in the ceiling. At first, we just stood there. That’s odd, right?
He brought it down the ladder and set it on the table. I was an older-style brown bag full of the typical stuff you’d find in a woman’s purse. And it was in great shape.
It was clean and there was no dust. At first, we didn’t know what to do. So I began to look for a driver’s license or some sort of identification so that we could find the owner.
As I dug through the purse I found a large wallet that people didn’t carry anymore in 2010. Inside were family photos, credit cards, but no driver’s license. In fact, I didn’t even see a place for a license. I still find that odd all these years later.
But the cash was gone out of the wallet and it was very clear that someone had stolen this purse, taken the money, and tucked it into the ceiling to hide their involvement.
What was left was a time capsule to a crime that happened years earlier.
I found her checkbook and the last check that was logged in the register was from August of 2001. At the time, this purse had sat silently in that ceiling for 9 years.
It was a frozen moment in time from a woman who hadn’t heard of Al Queda or seen an iPhone. I began to feel really bad for her because of the world that hadn't unfolded yet and because she had a personal item stolen from her that probably made her feel terrible.
How did she feel about the crime? When did she find out that her belongings were stolen? Was her husband mad at her? Did the thief ever get caught despite the evidence hidden while the world passed it by?
We brought it back to our office and showed it to our supervisors. They left it to us and I began to go through the bag to better understand who she was and how we might get it back to her.
What I found in the bag was interesting. It had everything a mom would have in her purse. The photo from the purse showed a posed family photo that you’d get taken at Sears.
It was a middle-aged couple with three kids that were elementary school-aged. I remember she looked like a nice person, like someone who might be trusting enough to leave her valuables unattended because why would anyone want to steal from her.
Going back to the checkbook I was able to find out more about her including her and her husband’s names. There was also an address.
Using 2010 Google I wasn't able to find them at that address, but I did find a name that matched the husband at a local office. It was a stretch because it was a common name. (And no, I don’t remember their names now.) So not finding a 100% match, I decided that we should take it to the campus police.
The Other Side of the Story
What was left in the purse also told a story about the thief? The obvious missing thing was the cash from the wallet. Remember this was 2001, we still used cash back then.
I couldn’t find a driver's license, university ID, or a place where it would have been in the wallet. The wallet looked untouched except for the absence of cash. Her keys were also still there. There were car keys and house keys on it.
The thief wasn’t interested in taking her car or stalking her beyond this petty theft. It was obvious that the thief only wanted what he or she could carry away quickly.
How the thief disposed of the evidence speaks to several things. First, the thief didn’t want to get caught. The environment of this building only allowed for certain types of people to be in it: students and staff. It’s safe to assume that the thief was one of those.
Of course, it could have been a contractor or something unique, but the overall options are a student or staff member. Whoever it was placed a high value on not being caught for fear of social ex-communication, losing a job, or being kicked off-campus. For that reason, I don’t think this was a hardened criminal, simply someone who saw an opportunity and couldn’t pass it up.
This was also not their first rodeo, they had stolen before. The concept of hiding the purse in the architecture of the building speaks to experience and intelligence. While I think this was a crime of opportunity, the thief relied heavily on previous crimes to pull this one-off.
Maybe it wasn’t the first petty theft they’d pulled in that building and it might not have been the last. And chances are they hid the purse in that room because it was empty at the time and close to where it had been taken from.
Across the hall was a small snack bar with a few tables. It probably was taken from there. Maybe this woman had gotten up from her table to refill her drink or she got in line for a sandwich. It was then that the thief seized their opportunity.
We took the purse to campus police and explained what had happened. The young officer nodded a bunch to us, took my information, and we handed over the purse. He didn’t seem as interested or as curious as I was about it.
In fact, when we got back to our work van Greg said that this was probably the end of the investigation. That campus police probably didn’t care as much or had the time to look into it further. He was right.
At that moment I wished I had kept it and called the name I had found on Google just to take a shot at it. Or maybe I’m wrong and they did find the owner all these years later. Regardless it was the conclusion of my involvement.
I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know the real end of the story. In the 11 years since that time I’ve thought of 100 different things, I could have done.
Like why was I in such a hurry to give it over to campus police? It had been missing for 9 years, what was one more day? Why did I care so much?
It was a crime, mystery, and puzzle in my hands so I felt like I needed to give it my best. I still feel bad for this wife and mother all these years later. Did she ever get the closure she needed? I’ll probably never know.
But I learned a lot about how this criminal worked and we as normal people think that if a purse is stolen then this monster of a person is going to use our belongings against us.
They have our keys, credit cards, and address. They could come to our home and rob us again. But that wasn’t the case. It was a simple theft of cash and maybe a cell phone. It was never any more than that.
There’s a brief look into my over-analytical mind. This event helped me learn not to overestimate or overreact to crime. But it showed me that as a non-criminal I can step into the mindset of someone else and understand how they might think and work. Don’t be afraid to think like a criminal, it might change how you live your life.