Tuesday, October 12, 2010

True Crime Tuesday: Amanda Enayati catches a thief

My hands shook as I tapped out what I hoped was a casual e-mail query: "Hi!! I could TOTALLY use a GPS. Is this one still available? Where are you located? Thanks!!! Jasmine."

HALLIE: On September 20, just three weeks ago, writer Amanda Enayati was struck by lightning. Of course, she made it happen by writing the story of how she pursued and eventually helped police catch the guy who stole from her, selling it to Salon, and making it so hilarious and heartbreaking that it went viral.

She’s like one of the cheeky sleuths in a mystery novel who takes matters into her own hands and uses Craigslist, a dating site, MySpace, and surveillance footage from a MacDonald's to track him down, fueled by her determination that she will not sit around feeling like a victim.

I met Amanda when she took my workshop at Aspen Writers. Welcome to Jungle Red, Amanda! So what’s it like, having something you write touch a nerve the way this has?

AMANDA: I had a sense that I had an unusual story—I had been telling it to friends for a while—but really, I had no idea it would touch off such a frenzy. It was thrilling, of course. What I like the most is how many people seemed empowered by the idea of the ‘anti-victim’—someone who’s determined to get up, dust off and keep going, no matter what happens.

HALLIE: As mystery writers, we have a hard time getting readers to believe that what we call an “amateur sleuth” can do what the cops don’t. What was it that pushed you to actually track this creep down?

AMANDA: The thief really benefited from a “perfect storm.” It was late. We were in a hurry. We forgot a bag in the car, and it was the bag we had taken to the museum that held all my valuables—Blackberry, wallet, cash and cards. And finally, in our rush we forgot to lock the car doors. It could not have gotten any more disastrous for us—and lucky for the thief—than that.

What pushed me to check Craigslist to begin with was how helpless and violated I felt. I do know rationally that this guy’s theft had nothing to do with me. But I had been through so much that past year that I remember thinking: Oh heck no! This is not going to go down as another bad episode in my life. My going after him had more to do with me trying to take control of the situation, rather than be controlled, if that makes sense.

HALLIE: You used your stolen Garmin GPS and Craigslist to find him - that was inspired! How on earth did you hit on that as a strategy?

AMANDA: There had been a rash of GPS thefts in our town. People were really unhappy because in most of those incidents, the thieves had also broken car windows. I remember thinking to myself: Where are the thieves selling all these stolen devices? And the answer was that, unless they were absolutely irrational (read: on drugs), they were going to Craigslist and Ebay. Given that it’s local, Craigslist represents a more immediate kind of gratification so I went there first.

When did you decide to get the cops involved, and what were they able to do that you couldn’t?

AMANDA: Remember that at first, I had no intention of reporting the theft to the police at all. I felt, rather perversely, that since our doors were left unlocked, we deserved it. (But of course, we didn’t!)

If I had called the cops earlier, perhaps I could have asked them to accompany me to meet the thief when he first responded to my email about his ad, but I hadn’t and so that was a lost opportunity. But after a couple of days of finding my stuff on people’s lawns and in bushes, I was pretty pissed.

The final straw for me was when someone found my driver’s license and cards on a train station floor. The thief had not even bothered to throw them in the trash. That seemed so callous and … rude—even for a thief.

That’s when I called the police. What I edited out of the Salon story because it was so difficult to believe was that I had scoured Craigslist that entire week and pulled a number of GPS-for-sale ads that I suspected had been placed by the same thief who had stolen from me. Many of you who are long-time writers and editors know that if you’re handed several writing samples, you can make a pretty good guess at which ones were written by the same person.

I got a handful of comments from skeptical readers, saying the police don’t care about stolen GPS devices. But the reason why I think the police were so responsive to me was because I made the case that this was not an isolated theft, and that this guy was habitually hitting up the neighborhoods in our town. And of course the police already knew that these thefts had been an issue and that the residents were upset. Also, our little police department here is competent, helpful and all-around amazing.

As far as what the police were able to do that I never could: That McDonald’s would not have allowed anyone but law enforcement to review its surveillance tapes that showed the thief using my credit card. Also, Craigslist responded quickly to the detective’s request for records. And, of course, how would I gone to this guy’s home and arrested him?

By the way, I never did recover my wallet, GPS or birthday money, but seriously, could the thief have given me a bigger gift than this story?

HALLIE: I love that you found that motherlode of information about him on a dating site.

AMANDA: Most of our stuff is all out there these days, isn’t it? Whether it’s on a dating site, Twitter, Myspace, Ebay, Facebook, or even Yelp.

At one point, a clue led me down the wrong path to this other guy who had the same name and was from the same town as the thief, and even kind of looked like him.

HALLIE: Red herrings!

AMANDA: I remember checking out that other guy’s reviews on Yelp, reading his blog and looking at photos of him and his wife, and thinking: “This is a good person. If he was out there stealing, he must have had a good reason.” That’s how much I could tell about him from what was on the Web.

All the information that’s freely available nowadays would make Holmes, Marple and Poirot’s heads explode!

HALLIE: Amanda, tell us what you're working on now - where can we find more of your stories?

AMANDA: I have a series of five essays rolling out on CNN.com Health this week to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am also researching a true crime piece—a fifteen year old who went to prison for shooting two police officers—and trying to find a home for the story, and continuing to work on my memoir. I keep a daily blog at practicalmagicforbeginners.com, which I started as a one-year experiment last January.

A huge thanks to Hallie and the rest of the Jungle Red writers.

HALLIE: I hope you don’t mind if I end this with a paragraph from the essay. Because this is the part that moved me to angry tears:

See, aspiring thief, you just never know what you're stepping into when you hit up a random car on a random street. However badass you think you may be, there is someone on the other side of the robbery. And in this particular case it was someone who escaped the Iranian Revolution as a child; who roamed the world alone for five years because her parents couldn't get out; who watched from a dozen blocks away as the twin towers crumbled; who had just barely clawed her way out of that concentration camp known as late-stage cancer, if only because she was intent on raising her babies, come hell or high water. And all of this before she even turned 40. Can you see how that someone might be way more twisted than you?

... Amanda will be hanging out today on Jungle Red. Please, share your thief tracking triumphs or frustrations, or just join the conversation...


  1. Wow Amanda,
    What a great story and what a great sleuth you are. It never occurred to me that Craigs List would become a fence for stolen goods but of course it makes perfect sense.

    Congratulations for first: not taking it, and second, making a success of it.

  2. Thank you, Jan. As much as I like Craigslist, I am so frustrated by that aspect of it. I hated being stolen from but I loved writing about it!

  3. Amanda, this is an amazing story! We can learn so much from your experience about making our amateur sleuths seem real. We always talk about our sleuth's "stake" in getting involved in solving the crime. Yours is so compelling and multi-layered!

    So now, is a book coming next?

  4. Amanda, this is a fabulous story.
    I wish I'd had you with me when a slick thief set up a scenario to steal our bag on a train in Europe. I felt so angry and powerless then, I had to resort to drawing a picture of him and then sticking my nail scissors into parts that might hurt!

  5. Rhys - can you hear me laughing?

    I actually DID stop a thief. Once. On the subway shuttle across 42nd St. The doors were about to close and I was standing there yacking with my girlfriend, looked down and saw a hand in my unzipped shoulder bag. It came out with a wallet and I gave chase...just getting through the closing doors and screaming THAT MAN STOLE MY WALLET! Up the stairs screaming. Two burly guys stopped him and held him until the police got there. I ended up testifying before the grand jury...bizarre for a pickpocket...and they ran a story about it in the NY Post. I thought THAT was my 15 minutes of fame. Little did I know...

  6. Roberta, don't laugh. But I got calls from a couple of film producers about making a movie that I would like to call, "Not Without My Wallet." I had a conversation with one of them & he wanted me to sign a "pre-option agreement" whereby I would commit my work & he would commit ... nothing. You can guess where that went ;)

  7. Thanks, Rhys. I can't tell you how upset I was that first day. It's not about "the stuff" at all, is it? What was most upsetting to me was the violation of my trust and space. I'm cracking up about the picture and nail scissors. Did it work? I will try that next time.

  8. Amanda,
    I happened to read your CNN breast cancer articles yesterday and today because my best friend,a 47 year old mom of three and an exceptionally kind and loving person, undergoes her double mastectomy tomorrow. I want to understand as much as I can for her.
    You are a gifted writer and an amazing women. Funny, too. I wish we could share a cup of tea and discuss the world.
    Thank you for sharing pieces of your life. Hugs to you and your children.

  9. Your friend will be in my thoughts and prayers tomorrow. What a lovely friend you are! Thank you for the kind words. Please drop me a line and let me know about her recovery. My email is on my blog page.

  10. Best story ever. Brilliant. Inspirational. ANd proves that real life is more amazing than fiction.

    We witnessed a car accident a few years ago. I completely saw the driver who hit another car, then took off. I remember thinking--I need to recognize this guy. It went through my mind: HIgh forehead. Pointy widows peak. Pointy long nose. HIgh cheekbones.

    When the police came, I said I had seen the driver.

    I was called as a witness, and had to point him out in court. They had put him in the audience of the courtroom, in the midst of a hundred or so people. I completely knew who it was. NO question.

    He was found guilty.

    It stll chills me.

    Thanks Amanda! Sounds like a movie to me...but reality is good enough.

  11. Wow, that's a powerful passage from an amazing story! Thanks for sharing it and congrats on your well-deserved success!

  12. My car was just broken into in a smash-and-grab for its GPS, one of a rash of these happening in the area where I was visiting friends. NOW I feel empowered after reading your interview, Amanda. And congrats on getting it to Salon~

  13. What a fabulous memory, Hank! I can barely remember what my husband looks like sometimes. ;)

  14. Thank you, Supriya and Marni.

  15. Congratulations Amanda. I wish you continued success and unbridled happiness. Just reading of your bought with cancer. I pray for your continued good health. My best wishes to you and your family. H.B.

  16. Congratulations Amanda. I wish you continued success and unbridled happiness. Just reading of your bout with cancer. I pray for your continued good health. My best wishes to you and your family. H.B.