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Maryland family helps to catch a thief using cellphone's GPS technology

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 9:44 PM

At first, all Kari and Derek Fisher knew about the man who broke into their house was that he was careful enough to cut the screen window and neatly fold it so as not to get scratched on the way out. Given the size of the opening, he probably wasn't very big. And he liked to talk.

The couple and their two young children were asleep early Sept. 24 when the burglar crept into their Adelphi home. He found the home office, where he palmed a pair of digital cameras, a video camera, a satellite radio, and two camera bags filled with memory cards and batteries. He swiped Derek Fisher's wallet and cellphone from a desk.

As he worked his way across the first floor, the burglar was quiet enough not to wake Derek, who had fallen asleep in a nearby guest room.

But once outside, the burglar started talking, using the stolen cellphone. His chattiness was his undoing.

After the Fishers awoke several hours later, Kari Fisher spotted the cut and folded screen. It took her a second to absorb what it meant.

That revelation sparked a series of slightly panicked phone calls, first to the Prince George's County police and then to banks and credit card companies to cancel cards. The Fishers also called their cellphone carrier, Sprint Nextel.

When a customer service representative offered to cut off the stolen phone or transfer the number to a new one, Derek Fisher asked out of curiosity whether there was some way for the company to see where the phone was. The customer service rep told him about a locator service he could sign up for on a 15-day free trial. Fisher agreed and signed on.

The Sprint Family Locator service, launched in 2006, relies on GPS technology embedded in the phone. AT&T and Verizon offer similar versions of the service, which is marketed as a way for parents to surreptitiously keep tabs on their kids, or, as the online demo puts it, "to make sure Caroline made it to morning band practice without interrupting the music."

This now-standard piece of helicopter parenting gear also lends itself to off-label uses, such as busting cheating spouses and, it turns out, chasing bad guys.

Family Locator's accuracy depends on several factors, including the phone's proximity to a cellphone tower and the strength of the tower signal. In the burglar's case, it was able to pinpoint where he was within 14 yards.

Kari Fisher called 911. "Oh, my God, we can see the thief! Send the police!" she recalled saying.

The 911 dispatcher didn't share her enthusiasm, and it took a few more calls to reach Detective Daniel Hader, who was handling the case. The Fishers began e-mailing him screen shots of the maps from Family Locator showing the phone's location.

"I thought a gold mine had fallen into my lap," Hader said.

Property crimes usually are notoriously hard to solve. There typically aren't witnesses or much evidence left behind. The victims rarely know serial numbers that could help track stolen goods. And to take advantage of a cellphone's GPS capability and obtain detailed call logs, Hader must first put in a request to the state's attorney's office for a subpoena that he can then send to the carrier. The process can take a few weeks. During that time, the phone might run out of power, or the burglar might ditch it, robbing the police of their strongest lead.

The only way around that process is if there is an imminent threat to someone's life or safety. A run-of-the-mill break-in doesn't qualify. So Hader went over to the Fishers' a few hours after they began e-mailing him and had them pull whatever records they could access online.

Burning through minutes

Kari Fisher could see that the burglar was burning through minutes. The couple had gone to sleep about 2 a.m. The break-in took place an hour or so later. The thief made his first call at 3:48 a.m.

"He called 411!" she shouted, smarting at the thought of the $1.79 charge.

The Family Locator was able to place the stolen phone inside a Hyattsville apartment building. It took a few more days of shoe-leather police work to identify the precise apartment and to get a search warrant.

On Oct. 5, the police picked up Jose Eguizabal-Najera, 27, who was also a suspect in another burglary. During a search of his Hyattsville apartment, police said they found Derek Fisher's cellphone, a flat-screen TV still in its box, a couple of high-end bikes and unopened UPS boxes that turned out to be the bounty from an unreported robbery.

Police charged Eguizabal-Najera with first-degree burglary in the Fisher case. He faces first-degree burglary charges in one other case as well.

The Fishers were elated. They sent breathless e-mails to neighborhood group lists about what happened. Friends joked that they should do a testimonial for Sprint.

The Fishers would have been happy to - until they learned that they would have to pick up the thief's portion of their cellphone bill.

Sprint executives told them that by not suspending the phone, the Fishers had essentially granted the thief permission to use it.

"We would consider any authorized usage as valid and billable," Brandon-Ross Howard of the company's executive and regulatory services office told the Fishers in an e-mail.

1,000 calls over 11 days

The thief made about 1,000 calls over 11 days that were mostly covered by the Fishers' plan. But Kari Fisher, who is a tax attorney for the IRS, argued that Sprint should eat the $35 tab out of principle.

After a reporter inquired about the charge, Sprint agreed to waive it.

Last Thursday night, Derek and Kari Fisher picked up the phone from the police station in Hyattsville. It was their turn to take an unauthorized look into the life of the suspect. They learned from police that he had a wife and that his apartment was filthy and spartan.

He was also particular about his cellphones. He had customized the stolen phone, switching out the plain back plate for one with a wave pattern and changing the language setting to Spanish. He added pictures of a toddler sitting on a mattress, eating from a bowl.

Toward the end of the visit, Derek Fisher said he didn't want to know any more. "I don't want to see him," he said. "I think it would give me nightmares."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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