By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Karen Todd never considered herself much of a sleuth. A member of her church's board of deacons and the PTA at her children's schools, Todd is more likely to be quilting or pruning sweet peas in her garden than catching up on the latest crime-solving strategies on "CSI" or "Law and Order."
Still, police are crediting this mother of two and U.S. Census Bureau computer programs designer with taking down a burglary suspect they believe is responsible for at least 13 thefts in Prince George's, one in Montgomery and two in Anne Arundel -- simply by checking the eBay online auction site for items stolen from her Bowie home.
"She pretty much cracked the case," said Prince George's County police Detective Ray Gignac, who handles property crimes for the Bowie District. "She's a pillar of the community -- someone who takes a step forward to reduce crime. It's pretty amazing."
Todd's story began April 7, when her home in the Gradys Walk subdivision was burglarized. The break-in was discovered by her husband, Dan, a systems analyst at Census, when he returned home to find the sliding door to their kitchen smashed. Missing were a specially inscribed Apple iPod MP3 player that Karen Todd had given her husband for Christmas, her Apple iBook laptop computer, a digital camera that still held pictures of their spring cruise to the Caribbean and an amethyst dinner ring inherited from her grandmother.
"They didn't take that much, which really surprised me . . . " Karen Todd said. "I was mostly upset about the iPod because it had been a gift."
Police came and took a report. The break-in, police told the couple, was part of a rash of home burglaries in the area. The Todds cleaned up the mess and pretty much gave up hope that their things would be returned.
But Karen Todd visited the eBay Internet site a few times, hoping to find their stolen goods. She'd had her husband's iPod inscribed with lyrics from his favorite song, by John Hiatt, called "Have a Little Faith in Me," and he had spent hours filling it with songs from the Beatles, the Who and other favorite artists.
"It said, 'When your back is against the wall, turn around and see,' " Karen Todd said, recalling the inscription. "I thought it was kind of silly, because if your back is against the wall and you turn around, you'll see the wall, but my husband appreciates lyrics like that with double meanings."
The iPod wasn't on eBay the first few times she searched. When she had trouble replacing it because Apple had stopped making that model, a work colleague suggested that they search eBay for a similar player. As they scrolled down, an iPod with the inscription came into view -- and with an opening bid of $9.95.
"I was shocked and almost in tears," Karen Todd said. "I was like, 'That's mine! That's mine!' I was just floored. When I found it, I clicked on 'see seller's other items,' and when I scrolled through, lo and behold, there was my [laptop]."
Surrounded by co-workers who had heard her "squealing," Karen Todd began looking closely at the site where her items had been found. She noticed several other computers, cameras, video camcorders and the like. She also noticed that the site was registered to a Beltsville sports memorabilia dealer.
Odd, she thought.
She called police.
"I received a call that a woman wanted to talk to me about finding her Apple iPod on eBay," Detective Gignac said. She also told him about finding her laptop, as well as other items listed by the seller, Joseph Stratton, owner of J&K Sports Cards and Memorabilia in Beltsville.
Gignac, armed with a search warrant and the serial numbers to the computer and MP3 player, found the items at J&K the next day. He said he also found items that had been stolen in home burglaries in Bowie, Largo, Glenn Dale and Olney.
The investigation led police to Ibrahima Kalil Toure, of Bowie, a Sierra Leone national who celebrated his 21st birthday in jail Tuesday, a week after police arrested him. He has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree burglary in Prince George's and two in Anne Arundel.
Joseph Stratton, owner of J&K, said he was not aware that the items he had posted on eBay had been stolen. He said he could not say how much he paid Toure, whom he has identified as the person who brought the items to him. "I'm in the business of buying things -- any items of value," he said. "The police have gotten the items back. I'm out the money, and my role is done."
Prince George's police plan to present Karen Todd with a special commendation tomorrow during the Bowie City Council meeting, along with a $100 gift certificate to Best Buy. She'll likely buy music to record more songs onto her husband's iPod to replace the ones that were erased when it was stolen.