Student Finds a Stolen Thesis by Thinking Like a Thief

Linda Cerniglia revisits the scene of her salvation: the Greenbelt trash bin where she found the computer drive holding the only copy of her thesis.
Linda Cerniglia revisits the scene of her salvation: the Greenbelt trash bin where she found the computer drive holding the only copy of her thesis. (By Josh Johns)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

When Linda Cerniglia went back to school, it took her almost seven years to get through all the prerequisites, the labs, the research. And it took a thief just moments to grab her purse, with the only copy of her master's thesis stored on a tiny jump drive inside.

For anyone who's ever obsessed about a project but forgotten to back up the data, watched a computer screen fizzle just before a deadline or left crucial documents in a cab -- here is a story about backing up, and moving forward.

It's about how Cerniglia almost went crazy, then took a deep breath and thought like a crook, acted like a cop and ended up in a big trash bin -- all in pursuit of her master's degree.

Grad school never came easily to Cerniglia, who majored in dance as part of the University of Maryland's Class of 1986, became a personal trainer and returned to the school in her forties for a master's degree in exercise physiology. She designed an experiment, analyzed CT scans, ran statistics, studied research and -- slowly -- began to write her thesis.

"It was so painful," she said. "I would rather go outside and dig a hole all day long than write."

She tried to trick herself into working on it, by going to a coffee shop or finding a sunny picnic table in the park. She could use a computer anywhere, because she had all the research on a jump drive, a tiny, portable memory-storage device about the size of a cigarette lighter.

Another student, Neil Doldo, told her to back up the data: He had lost his jump drive with his almost-finished thesis, spent three sickening days retracing his steps searching for it, until finally his dogs Zeus and Mela tired of it and left it on the floor near the dog bed.

Marc Rogers, Cerniglia's thesis adviser at U-Md., remembers everyone making carbon copies of their typewritten theses when he was a graduate student. People said, " 'Oh yeah, I had a backup copy. It was in my freezer in a little plastic bag because if the apartment burned down, it's still okay,' " he said.

"When you're writing one of these," Rogers said, "your whole existence depends on this thing."

One afternoon in September at Carderock Park, after doing some perfectionist tweaking of her almost-finished thesis, Cerniglia locked her things in the car. She went for a run along the C&O Canal, reveling in how great it felt to be almost done.

An hour or so later at her home in Bethesda, she realized her purse was gone. Her bank cards, driver's license, Social Security card, $1,000 worth of checks from clients -- she didn't care. But the jump drive was in the purse. And she still had not made a backup, even after hearing Doldo's "the dog ate my thesis" story.

She could hardly breathe. She felt sick. She raced to the police, who told her she would never find it; it could have been pawned, it could have been dropped, run over, flushed. "Million to one odds," said Officer Charles Whiteman of the U.S. Park Police. "It doesn't happen."

As the officer inspected her minivan that evening, she told him, "It's absolutely imperative that you do the best fingerprinting possible -- we must find this. We must find this ." He was nice, she said, but she knew what he was thinking: "This crazy broad is never going to see that thing again."

As the two of them called to cancel her credit cards, Cerniglia found that one had already been used, at 2:37 p.m. at a Target in Greenbelt. "This guy drove like a bat out of hell," she said; she had left the car at 2 p.m. and within 37 minutes he had pulled a tiny side window off its hinge, squeezed into the car, swiped the bag, driven more than 20 miles, found a $481.85 vacuum cleaner and paid for it. A few minutes later, another charge popped up. Another Target, another vacuum cleaner. Then another.

That night she couldn't sleep, tortured by visions of her lost jump drive. The next morning, Cerniglia began to think about what she would do if she were the thief. Get out of there fast, speed out on the Beltway, then dump the purse.

There was a chance, just a chance.

She was going to retrace his steps, go to every store he hit. She would talk to security guards, check lost-and-found, scour the parking lots.

So that day, she drove to Greenbelt, and as soon as she parked she saw a big trash bin behind a Wendy's, like a beacon. It was perfect. "It was open. It was hidden. I thought, 'That's it -- if it's going to be anywhere, it's going to be there.' "

She started pulling out broken-down boxes. She didn't care about the trash, even if it was greasy slop from a fast-food place. "No cockroach, no rat, no creature from the dark was going to keep me from my jump drive," she said. "Nothing is as bad as the thought of rewriting that thesis."

She saw a flash of aqua cloth. Her heart pounded -- it looked like her workout pants. "Then I see my gym bag. I jumped into the dumpster. I'm throwing things out of the way. I see my driver's license."

And there, at the bottom, was her black leather purse. She unzipped it, reached in, and felt her fingers close around -- her jump drive.

People driving by stared: A 5-foot-4 43-year-old woman jumping up and down in a trash bin, screaming.

Cerniglia is done. She will get her master's degree today, with more than one copy of a thesis her adviser described as "exemplary."

The thief wasn't quite so smart, leaving fingerprints and showing up on store security cameras. Police say they know who took her purse. And they've got the tape to back it up.


 
To Catch a Thesis
Linda Cerniglia set out to find her purse - and the thesis stored on the jump drive inside it - by tracking the use of her credit cards.
To Catch a Thesis
By Gene Thorp and Laris Karklis, The Washington Post - December 22, 2005
© 2005 The Washington Post Company