Facebook Solves Another Crime, Details Inside


At noon on Friday, March 15, a burglar entered our home in Kaaawa, Hawaii.

It was one of 10 burglaries reported during the first two weeks of March in Sector 4 of the Honolulu Police Department’s Windward Oahu district, a relatively thinly populated country district running from Kaaawa to Kawela Bay.

The crime itself wasn’t anything special, just a run-of-the-mill burglary, in which someone broke in and “went shopping in our house.” It’s something that happens on Oahu 5,000 times or more in a given year.

But “our” burglary was different because a hidden camera captured several reasonably good digital photos of the burglar, caught in the act as he went through our house, and I turned to social media to identify and track him down. It led to a wild three-day experience in which the new world of technology and social media took on the old problem of everyday crime.

Smile! You’re Now a Crime Statistic

It’s Friday. The end of a long week. We arrived home in the late afternoon. I was first through the front door, and immediately saw that the sliding door out to the back deck was open. The cats, normally inside cats, were lounging around on the deck. It took only a few seconds to realize this meant someone had broken in.

The immediate reaction is a sinking feeling, an anticipatory sense of loss. You don’t yet know what was taken, but you can imagine what it might include. And the whole process of being burglarized is doubly depressing, because after the crime and the initial sense of loss comes the bureaucracy, adding up the dollars and cents, dealing with the police, with your insurance company, then facing the decisions about what to replace, and what to just try to forget about. And then there are the “what if’s.” What if we had installed an alarm? What if I had stayed home that day? What if we had hidden that prized item away. What if… The self-recriminations can drag you down as much as the crime itself.

As we went through the house, the places that had been searched were pretty obvious. Drawers pulled open, containers tossed around. It makes you alternately angry, then depressed. Then it leaves you just sort of empty.

We should have called the police immediately, but it was Friday night, we were scheduled to have dinner with friends, and the burglar — along with our stuff — was long gone. So we waited until the next morning to call HPD. I doubt it made us great company that evening.

A Photo Finish

This isn’t the first time we’ve been burglarized since moving to Kaaawa 26 years ago. After someone walked off with a laptop computer in 2007, I installed a small, wireless camera that automatically starts taking pictures when it detects motion in the room, and uploads them to a secret spot in the “cloud.” The camera requires a wireless network to connect to the internet, but doesn’t need to be connected to a computer to function.

Once the initial shock and depression wore off, I remembered the camera. Before long, I retrieved the photos, each automatically time and date stamped, and got a good sense of what had happened.

The burglar first appeared on camera about 11:52 a.m., just minutes before noon. Although burglary is usually a young man’s crime, this burglar looked to be around 50. He wore dirty jeans — as if fresh from work on a construction site — a gray t-shirt and athletic shoes. Wrap-around sunglasses were pushed up on his head. To avoid leaving finger prints, he wore makeshift gloves made out of plastic bags that were taped over his hands. Once inside the house, he moved quickly and silently through the living room and kitchen, then moved down the hall to our bedroom, emerging several minutes later carrying a pillow case holding items he had taken. Then he made another quick look around the living room, stopping to dump a small bowl of coins — several months of accumulated pocket change — into the pillow case, then added a camera he spotted on a table across the room. And, finally, he made his exit out to the deck, graciously leaving the door open for the cats to enjoy. He was quick and efficient, in and out of the house within ten minutes. None of our neighbors noticed anything unusual. And the cats didn’t say a word.

After first retrieving the digital photos, I printed a couple and walked the nearby streets, asking neighbors if they recognized the man. One thought the person looked familiar. I took note. Others took long looks, then shook their heads. Nothing.

So I sat down and did two things. First, I prepared a 4-by-6-inch photo of the burglar to pass out and post in the neighborhood, and sent it to Costco to have several dozen digital prints made. And then I posted the photo and a brief description of what happened on my own personal website, as well as on a website featuring occasional news about Kaaawa, with additional links posted on Twitter and Facebook.

I was stunned by the result. Even before we had a chance to pick up the printed photographs, the pictures of the burglar at work, and my call to help identify him, had gone viral. Twitter seems to have been effective in getting the word to the news media and to key opinion leaders, who then retweeted details to their own networks. But Facebook seems to have had by far the most reach, as people saw the information and reposted it, quickly taking this from a local quest to a search with national reach.

How effective was social media? Here’s one indicator. The number of page views on my blog jumped from a daily average of about 2,000 to 58,857 on Sunday, and another 17,818 on Monday, undoubtedly generated by the reposting of information with links back to my original post. That’s a pretty dramatic reach, achieved in just a matter of hours. And it made the difference.

Mainstream news media then picked up the story, spurred on by the online response the issue had been getting. And the broadcast news coverage, in turn, reinforced the social media presence.

A phone call came in early Sunday morning from Las Vegas, where several former Hawaii residents had compared notes and said they believed the burglar was a Hauula man. They provided his name as well as a good description of where he lives. Phone calls, emails, and online comments continued throughout the day, and into the evening, with quite a number of other people pointing to the same Hauula resident as the person in the photo. Several other names came up as well, including a former Kaaawa resident recently seen surfing nearby.

Case Solved!

It was social media that broke the case open.

Late Sunday afternoon, just 24-hours after I first posted the burglar’s photo online, a man called and, without identifying himself, said he knew the person in the photo. He said he wanted to talk to him before saying more. I encouraged him to call me back any time, but wasn’t sure if this was any more solid than the other leads that had been offered.

He called back a few hour later. He was, I learned, one of the burglar’s brothers. He had been alerted to the photograph by a daughter living on the mainland, who saw it on Facebook and thought she recognized her uncle. With the photograph getting such broad exposure, it would have been hard for the family to look the other way. And, thankfully, they didn’t.

While crowdsourcing made a tremendous contribution to getting out the word about the search for the burglar, it wasn’t as successful at making the actual identification. The burglar, as it turns out, was not the Hauula man mentioned most often by those online. Instead, it was the former Kaaawa resident, identified by just a couple of people who seemed to be swimming against the tide. He was someone who had done a lot of work as a neighborhood handyman back around 2002, and who we had hired back then to do repairs on our deck. We later learned, according to rumors circulating in the neighborhood, that he might not be a novice when it comes to the art of the burglary. And now he had come back, after more than a decade.

Just before 9 p.m. on Sunday night, I was standing in our driveway, in the darkness, meeting with the burglar’s brother. He said the family had confronted the man, who admitted to the burglary. He then reached into his truck and presented me with a dark pillowcase which, on later examination, was filled with almost everything that had been stolen. A few items, those with any gold content, had already been pawned, but he said the family would do their best to retrieve and return those items as well.

I believe the man’s brother was genuinely humbled and deeply pained by the experience, and was telling the honest truth when he said the family is now trying to “do the right thing.” He said the family had been trying to support their brother as he dealt with drug dependence and past criminal charges. It’s a struggle many local families will relate to, I’m sure. But what is the “right thing” under the circumstances, for the family, for the burglar, for the victims, and for the community? I don’t pretend to know. It’s something we’ll all be grappling with going forward.

We were obviously very lucky to solve the crime in a timely fashion, and also to get most of our stolen property back. But technology, such as our small security camera, combined with the long reach of social media, obviously provides new ways of responding to routine crimes of this kind. A small self-installed camera obviously won’t provide as much protection as a commercial alarm system, and neither can provide absolute security. But it doesn’t cost much and, as this has shown, can be quite effective. That said, I repeat–we were very lucky. Your mileage may vary.