I become a victim of crime

Last Wednesday, October 29th, was not a particularly good day for me. If there is any advice about travelling in foreign lands that I have taken firmly to heart, it is to stay out of foreign police stations if at all possible. Well, on that October day I actually saw the inside of the detention cell at the Peradeniya police station. Lest you be too alarmed, let me assure you that I was viewing it from the outside of the cell. Still, it was soberingly spartan quarters and sufficient incentive for me to stay on the straight and narrow.

When I was shown to my office in the Department of Physics, I was told two things: 1) Be very careful guarding my laptop, and 2) No real theft of any consequence has occurred in the Department for the last twenty years. Well I am a pretty careful guy anyway, so I was not too worried. My laptop went home with me every night and I locked my office door whenever I was away from my office for any extended period of time.

Now my office is about ten feet from the door to the Physics Faculty “lounge.” The Department of Physics is a very civilized organization and there is a morning tea and an afternoon tea held in the lounge every day. The lounge is also a gathering place for eating lunch. Most of the faculty go home for lunch, but if they do not, they bring a packet of food from home and eat what they brought in the lounge. The lounge is well equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, TV, and a steerable TV aerial(!). There is room for about twenty people to sit at a long table.

On that Thursday, several of us were taking our lunch in the lounge. Since the lounge is so close to my office, I had taken to closing, but not locking, my office door when I went to the lounge for lunch or tea. As we were eating and talking, I heard a loud crash, like a pile of wood hitting the floor. I was expecting someone to help me get my laptop connected to the Internet and went out the door to see if the noise signaled that someone was there to help.

As I exited the lounge door, the scene that greeted me was rather discordant. My laptop was lying on the floor in the middle of the door frame of my office door. The laptop hitting the floor had been the source of the crashing noise. I asked the department head, who was one of those having lunch in the lounge, to step out to view the scene, and he was joined by the other faculty members soon after. Kris was also present having come with me that day to use the Internet connection. Various natural explanations were offered to explain the position of the laptop. The wind? No. There was no source of strong wind, just the ceiling fan, and the laptop was eight feet from the desktop it had been sitting on. Monkeys? No. The window was closed and locked and monkeys are not generally known to open doors and no monkeys were in sight.

Then came the clincher. Looking around the room, it suddenly came to me that my backpack was missing. There were no natural explanations. Someone had entered my office and taken my backpack. As best as we can reconstruct events, the thief entered the room, unplugged the laptop power cable from the computer and the wall and put it into the backpack. Then, they probably put the laptop into the backpack and went to make their getaway. But this laptop is a Tablet PC. I speculate that the thief may not have been familiar with Tablet PCs and how to fold them into a compact form. If so, the laptop may have been insecurely stuffed into the backpack. This assumes that the thief was in too big a hurry to zip the backpack closed. As the thief tried to escape, the laptop apparently fell out of the backpack and the thief (probably wisely) decided that not being seen was more important than gathering up the laptop. As it was, the thief got away clean. A staff member reported hearing the noise and glimpsed someone running away, but could not identify the person he saw.

So discussion turned to what to do now. Campus security was called in. They came to the office and listened to the description of events. They suggested that we call the police. But the police can not act unless there is a complaint and the university does not have the standing to make a complaint.

So, down to the police station we went giving me the opportunity to see the detention cell. We were first interviewed by the local police “chief”, the OIC or “Officer in Charge” of the station. The OIC was very friendly. However, he let the department head know that there would be a jurisdictional dispute. Students here tend to be politically active, perhaps more so in the recent past than the present. This political activity has led to some clashes between students and the police. A result of these clashes was that the police had an agreement that they would not come onto campus unless invited by a campus vice president. It was the OICs view that this was entirely an internal matter to the university and should be handled by campus security. However, this was a pretty special case in that an actual crime had been committed on a resident visitor, one officially connected to the US government to boot. So the OIC sent us off to a subordinate, promising to do their best. We then repeated our story to the subordinate. At this point, I was asked to write a letter describing the events, addressed to the OIC and signed by me. This letter served as the official complaint that allowed for further police action. A plainclothes police officer then accompanied us back to my office on campus to view the scene of the crime. He took notes and sketched the layout of the hallway near my office. He asked detailed questions and we did our best to answer. Then he went away, promising to do his best.

I should mention at this point that none of the police officers speak much English, which still leaves them up on me as I can speak exactly three words of Sinhalese (yes, no, and Welcome!). Fortunately, Kris and I were accompanied by the department head and another faculty member and they did all the verbal communication with the police. We did manage some universal non-verbal communications that included thankfulness on our part and sympathy on their part.

The next day saw a flurry of followup events. The department head let the cleaning ladies know, in no uncertain terms, that they were all suspects until the thief was caught. He also called on the students to do what they could to help find the thief whose actions had brought shame onto their university’s name. There was an afternoon meeting of department heads with the Dean of the Faculty of Science, where it was revealed that someone had stolen a laptop from a staff member in Chemistry that very morning. Circumstances surrounding the theft from Chemistry strongly hinted at someone with inside knowledge, consistent with the rather brazen way in which my office was entered. We had moved from one isolated incident to a virtual crime wave.

And, I received a phone call on my new mobile phone. Unfortunately, this conversation was hampered by my hearingĀ  deficiencies, the quality of the connection, and my lack of knowledge of Sinhalese. I was in Kandy Town, about five kilometers from Peradeniya, hunting for a replacement power cord for the laptop. I thought I had established the identity of the caller as a student in my Classical Mechanics class, but later learned that I was mistaken. About the only clear thing in the “conversation” was my asking if the caller had my bag. The caller said no, but he had seen the bag. I asked the caller to meet me after class the next day.

After a bit, it struck me. Outside of two Peradeniya faculty members, no one in the Central Province knows my cell phone number. And the backpack contained a strip of plastic that came with my SIM card which had my cell phone number printed on it. The logical conclusion was that this was a conspiracy by the Physics Department… No, wait. The logical conclusion was that the caller, in fact, did have my backpack and was calling to negotiate a price for its return.

Sad to say, no one came by my office to talk to me the next day. We spent some days calling the number, but no one ever answered. Finally, today, the department head and I went back to the Peradeniya police station and gave the number to the police in the hopes that they would be able to trace the cell phone owner from the number. That is not a completely vain hope as cell phones are carefully regulated here. When Kris and I bought ours, a careful recording was made of our passport details, for example. The reason, of course, is that the LTTE often uses cell phones to detonate bombs.

So what did I lose? A 150 MB USB hard drive was the most expensive item. Fortunately, all the information that was on the hard drive was still on the laptop. (Note to self: Do not carry backup hard drive and laptop in same backpack in future. You got lucky this time.) There was a 4MB USB drive that had files I need for research and teaching here. Fortunately, these files are all (I hope!) backed up on the Kenyon network. Unfortunately the network setup here is not allowing me to connect to the Kenyon network to transfer the files. Hopefully that will get fixed soon. There were two cords that allow me to connect my hearing aid to either an audio output jack or to a cell phone in hands free mode. I could not find those in the US and had ordered them from the UK with considerable shipping charges. There was the laptop power cord. There were two special electronic “pens” that allowed me to write on my Tablet PC screen. In all, I valued the contents at about $400 replacement value.

Amazingly, I was able to replace the cord in Kandy the next day. I went to a hole-in-the-wall internet cafe that advertised computer repair services. I explained my problem to the clerk running the internet cafe and he said “one minute” and got on the phone. One half hour later, a used, but original equipment, HP cord (for a four year old computer!) was delivered to the internet cafe from a companion computer store a few kilometers away. Total cost: $43. I was impressed.

I had kind of hoped that the backpack would be tossed away like a wallet that is discarded by an American thief after the money and credit cards are removed. No luck so far. I will keep you posted.



1 Comment

  1. November 19, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    […] as reported before, my bag was stolen. I am only now learning that I had not backed up quite everything that was on my USB drive and will […]

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