A month before last Christmas, a church pastor in Louisiana found the gift his wife wanted: a Hewlett-Packard Elitebook laptop computer, selling on eBay for $500.
The Rev. Elijah Teh-Teh bought it, hid it and when the holidays came, he wrapped the box and put it under the tree. But his wife’s elation was short-lived. After a few sputtering starts, the computer stopped working. An internal security program had been activated and an ominous message flashed on the screen. The laptop was stolen.
“She was disappointed,” Teh-Teh said. “My wife is an educator, and she desperately wanted a laptop.”
Lawanda Teh-Teh’s gift from her husband had been taken in a burglary of a D.C. high school on Nov. 16, 2012, just 10 days before the pastor bought it from the popular Internet shopping site.
How this computer sped from Room 220 of Luke C. Moore Academy in Northeast Washington to the pastor’s bungalow-style house near Shreveport’s airport is a testament to the speed and efficiency of the underground pipeline that drives crime, including the District’s stubbornly high number of robberies.
In just a matter of days, authorities said, the laptop — last used at the alternative school by students finishing an art project for final exams — went on a 1,210-mile odyssey that included a stopover at an electronics store on H Street, near Mount Vernon Square, before heading south to the Gulf of Mexico. (Timeline: A stolen laptop’s journey )
Thousands of laptops and cellphones are taken each year in the District, and police readily admit that they are frustrated by the ease with which stolen treasures can be unloaded for fast cash. Some are recycled, others are sold on the streets or from stores that deal in stolen goods. In most cases, the trail becomes too convoluted to follow, and the electronics become lost on the legitimate market.
When Teh-Teh realized his thoughtful Christmas gift was “hot,” he sent it back to the District, called police and got a refund from eBay. D.C. police arrested the owner of the H Street store — 12 Volt Electronics — and charged him with trafficking in stolen property. Police are still looking for whoever swiped the laptop from the school.
D.C police, who say that cellphones were taken in roughly half of the District’s more than 3,600 armed and unarmed robberies this year, have made targeting the secondhand markets for electronics as much a priority as street sweeps.
D.C Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier campaigned against the suburban ATM-like mall kiosks that give cash for used cellphones, saying security measures haven’t stopped stolen phones from slipping through. She successfully pressured phone carriers to allow customers to “brick” — or remotely disable — stolen phones to render them useless to thieves. This year, lawmakers gave the city the authority to temporarily close shops linked to trafficking, the same way bars can be closed after violent crimes.
“Although street operations are critical, we also need to change some of the conditions that are allowing the secondary market in stolen personal electronics to proliferate,” Lanier told the D.C. Council’s public safety committee this year. She warned that “the cheap phone you buy today may have belonged to a robbery victim last week.”
In court documents, D.C. police describe 12 Volt Electronics, the seller that listed the computer that Teh-Teh bought on eBay, as a go-to place for pilfered merchandise. Authorities allege that workers routinely disabled tracking devices and wrote up fake repair orders to make it appear that the inventory was legitimate.
Police have raided 12 Volt Electronics twice in two years. In 2011, David Brown, 49, of Capitol Heights — described in court papers alternately as the owner and manager — was charged with trafficking and receiving stolen property. He is scheduled to go on trial on those charges Jan. 13. This year, in a case related to the laptop that Teh-Teh bought, Brown was charged with a single count of trafficking in stolen property. A trial date has not been set.
The day after Brown’s October arrest, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs closed 12 Volt Electronics.
Brown could not be reached. His attorney, Wendell C. Robinson, declined to comment.
The trail of the HP laptop from classroom to black market begins at the Luke C. Moore Academy, a few blocks from the Brookland Metro station. Its roughly 350 students are described as “disengaged” — high school dropouts seeking another chance or youths who have had trouble adjusting to traditional classrooms.
The computer and three others, all HP model 2740p Elitebooks purchased in 2009 with federal grant money, were in Room 220. They were used by students enrolled in an online “credit recovery” program to make up for classes they had failed.
On Nov. 16, 2012, a school employee discovered the computers were gone. Staff members think they were taken from the locked room between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Officials have not said how someone broke in.
The school’s principal, Azalia Speight, said the loss of the computers set students back about three weeks and forced a delay in completing their final projects. It took weeks for replacements to be bought — each costing $500 — from the school’s general fund.
“That money could’ve been spent on math books or on calculators or more art equipment,” Speight said. “When this happened, the kids weren’t able to finish what they were doing; they lost time.”
Speight said that authorities investigated whether the theft was an inside job, which caused further disruptions and restrictions on using other school computers.
Within 10 days of the theft, at least one of the computers ended up on a shelf at 12 Volt Electronics, police said.
In Shreveport, Teh-Teh was busy looking for a laptop for his wife, the program director at a nonprofit organization that helps youths and people who need financial and housing aid.
“I wanted to surprise her,” said Teh-Teh, 45, who has been pastor at New Zion Baptist Church church for two years. He spent days comparing prices on the Internet and finally settled on a computer he saw on eBay for $500. He bought it Nov. 26. Four days after Thanksgiving, his most important gift was in the mail.
But when his wife turned it on, she got a series of bizarre error messages. When her husband took a closer look, he saw a message pop up noting that the computer had been locked, that it was stolen and to call authorities at the D.C. school system. School computers are equipped with software similar to Lojack for cars, allowing owners to remotely shut them down.
Teh-Teh called the number on the screen. He also reached eBay, which provided the name of the seller, AV Tech, which had the same address and phone number as 12 Volt Electronics. The pastor called the seller and was told to return the computer to a United Parcel Service store on Massachusetts Avenue, 95 feet from the front door of the electronics store.
Teh-Teh was instructed to address the package to Brown’s wife, according to court documents. The pastor told detectives about the return, and they instructed UPS to hold the item until they could get a search warrant. They seized the computer March 11.
On Aug. 29, police raided 12 Volt Electronics. By then, police said, they not only had the pastor’s laptop as evidence but two cellphones taken in street robberies over the summer by a 12-year-old boy. The boy told police that a relative took him to 12 Volt to sell one of the phones for $250, court papers say. The relative took the cash — the boy got dinner at McDonald’s.
It took detectives two days to catalogue more than 500 electronic items believed to have been stolen, including Apple computers, a Sony PlayStation, car radio components, GPS devices and flat-screen televisions, according to an arrest affidavit. Police arrested Brown on Oct. 7.
It was Brown’s second arrest in two years. In November 2011, police said, a man who had his iPhone snatched from his hand on North Capitol Street in Northwest Washington used his GPS tracking app to find his phone “stationary at 309 H Street NW,” the address for 12 Volt Electronics.
At first, Brown told an officer that the phone had been brought in for repair, but he later admitted that he wrote up the repair receipt in the back while pretending to retrieve the phone, according to the arrest affidavit. Police say in the court documents that Brown told them people routinely brought him pilfered merchandise.
During the 2011 raid, D.C. police seized evidence linked to 16 robberies and thefts, some in Virginia. In addition to electronic devices, authorities said they found stolen construction equipment, video games, jewelry, musical instruments and bicycles, court papers say.
Teh-Teh, who presides over a church whose slogan is “where love abides,” said he is pleased an arrest has been made and that he got his money back from eBay. He also said he feels bad for the District students, whom he called the real victims.
Speight, the principal, complained of the “underground system that people are using to make money.” She said they “are taking advantage of government property and are doing it on the backs of the students I serve.”