Stolen camera conundrum

Similar item listed on Craigslist

What were the odds, sheriff’s Detective Mark Stewart wondered, that a highly specialized document camera would show up for sale in a Spokane Craigslist ad within a day of when one was stolen from North Pines Middle School.

And then what would be the odds that the thief would neglect to take the camera’s power cord and the one listed last month on Craigslist.org would be offered at a discount because a dog had eaten the power cord?

“The reason it’s going for so cheap is because there is no power cord, so it’s untested,” the seller wrote. “Bought it from a friend (he said it worked before the dog chewed up the cord) hoping I could buy a cord for it but I just don’t have the time and things are tight lately.”

Several pieces of electronic equipment, valued at $3,400, were taken in the burglary of the middle school at 701 N. Pines Road, including a computer, a Hewlett-Packard monitor, an Epson projector and a set of speakers. All of the power cords were left behind.

Uses for document cameras are somewhat limited. They allow printed images to be viewed on computer or television screens, or to be projected onto a wall screen – typically in a classroom setting.

Sure, it could be a coincidence that an AVerMedia brand AVerVision 300p document camera would come on the market in Spokane on the same day one was stolen, Stewart said.

Every teacher knows dogs eat homework, but what about that dog-ate-the-power-cord story?

“Yeah, that’s a pretty lame deal,” Stewart said.

To make up for the missing cord, the seller set a $200 price.

“I searched everywhere, and the cheapest I saw this thing going for was $375 on Amazon,” the seller claimed. “Get it for a cheap $200 here.”

Cash only, the seller added.

So Stewart thought he might be onto something when North Pines Middle School Principal Gordon Grassi called him Jan. 19 to report that a student had spotted the suspicious Internet advertisement.

One problem: The electronic time stamp on the ad indicated it was posted at 4:34 a.m. Jan. 12, but the school burglary didn’t occur until sometime between 5 p.m. that evening and 7 a.m. the next morning.

Maybe the Craigslist time stamp was wrong, or maybe the burglar posted the ad in anticipation of the crime, Stewart said in a request for a search warrant to compel Craigslist to provide information about the advertiser.

Clint Powell, Craigslist.org customer service manager, said the chances of the timestamp being wrong are “pretty small.” The time is drawn automatically from Craigslist servers, not posters’ computers.

“I can’t imagine it being wrong,” Powell said.

Anyway, Stewart said his search for the person who placed the ad “led absolutely nowhere.” The case demonstrates the difficulty of looking for digital fingerprints in an electronic haystack.

Craigslist.org turned over the poster’s e-mail address and the Internet address of the computer used to post the advertisement, leading Stewart to a Yahoo e-mail address and a Comcast internet service account.

Comcast identified one of its subscribers, based on a “dynamic IP address” that Stewart got from Craigslist for the exact second the suspicious advertisement was posted.

“That came back to a gal who had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Stewart said. “I’ve interviewed that person.”

The e-mail address also was useless because Yahoo and other providers of free e-mail accounts don’t require identification.

“It’s anonymous,” Stewart said. “It’s whatever you make yourself up to be.”

Using his own anonymous online persona, Stewart responded to the advertisement but got no reply.

The detective also had no luck when he looked into the possibility of locating the stolen computer with an electronic “ping” if it were connected to the Internet. The school’s limited video surveillance didn’t help, either.

If Stewart solves the case, it may be through old-fashioned police work. He’s watching for some of the stolen equipment to turn up in a pawn shop – which hasn’t happened so far anywhere in the region – and hoping for a tip.

Stewart said he talked to Grassi earlier this week to see whether school officials had heard anything.

“If it’s a kid from the school, they usually hear about it,” Stewart said, but the grapevine was silent.

He asked anyone with information about the document camera (serial number 349187050) or the other stolen equipment to call him at 477-3324.

John Craig may be contacted at johnc@spokesman.com.

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