“Let’s take his phone. We can run.”
That’s what the 22-year-old Johns Hopkins University engineering student heard the teenagers walking past him say, just before they jumped him.
According to the police report, it was April 13, a Saturday early in the afternoon. The student was with a friend on North Broadway, near Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, and had just called for a cab using his iPhone 5. Realizing what was about to go down, he put his phone in his back pocket.
“Let me see your phone,” one of the three males in the group said. When the victim refused, one of the youths grabbed his right arm, the other pushed him into the fence by the sidewalk, and the third grabbed the cellphone out of his hand.
PART 1: “Do kiosks that pay cash for used cellphones promote theft?”
The student came away with a scratched arm and told police he was unable to locate his $500 iPhone using its GPS tracking application because “the phone was turned off.”
It’s typical of the kind of incident that has plagued the city in recent months, hitting places like Hopkins especially hard, with lots of students and staff carrying high-end cellphones.
“The nation is dealing with an increase in cellphone thefts, and our Johns Hopkins Hospital and local communities are no different,” said Kim Hoppe, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, earlier this year.
Crime of Opportunity
If it’s a national problem, however, it’s especially severe in Baltimore, Hopkins says on its Safety and Security webpage.
The webpage notes that while 1 in 3 thefts nationwide is of a cellphone, “in Baltimore, the trend indicates that we may soon be at the point where phones are taken in the majority of street robberies.”
Hopkins security is “working closely” with Baltimore Police “to make sure perpetrators are apprehended and charged,” Hoppe said.
“We are also keeping the communities informed and educated about some simple ways to avoid becoming a victim of cellphone theft.” Hopkins has a detailed set of tips on ways to guard against cellphone theft and a “Cellphone Theft Prevention Video” to raise awareness about this “crime of opportunity.”
Then-police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed back in May that the Hopkins medical campus was experiencing a spate of street crime targeting pedestrians with phones and other mobile devices. Overall, police say, street robberies are up 6% compared to the same period last year.
Police have had some success catching the perpetrators. Last month, they arrested five juveniles and one adult linked to more than 20 smart phone robberies, most targeting walkers and joggers in north, northeast and southeast Baltimore. They have also made an arrest in the August 14 shooting on Roland Avenue of Zeb Drinkwater, an account executive at Chesapeake Systems. He’d been walking a friend to her car when the suspects approached and tried to steal her phone, police said.
Amid this surging season of cellphone crime, some have pointed the finger at the new phenomenon of ecoATM kiosks installed over the past year in area malls near the city. (The automated self-serve stations identify used phones and pay out instant cash to sellers.)
ecoATM officials say there is no proof their product has led to more cellphone theft. But Hopkins security made the connection in an emailed alert about a recent incident near the campus (an August 22 theft from a Kennedy Kreiger employee, see below.)
“Victims are being targeted as they talk and text on the phones and not paying attention to their surroundings. Cellphones can be converted to cash at ecoATMs in some shopping malls, so carry your phone inconspicuously and protect it with the same alertness you give to your cash.” (Emphasis ours.)
D.C. police chief Cathy L. Lanier has also blamed the self-serve kiosks for exacerbating the mobile device thefts in her jurisdiction.
Sampling of Recent Incidents in Baltimore and D.C. area
(This by-no-means-comprehensive list is culled and edited for space from Hopkins security bulletins and city, county and U.S. Justice Department documents.)
February 12, E. Monument St. – Female victim walking east at 6:45 p.m. carrying a black Blackeberry cellphone ($549) when a male snatched the phone from her hand and ran off, heading west. Hopkins security officers who took off after the suspect who dropped the phone. One officer caught the suspect, the other picked up the phone and returned it to the victim.
April 13, N. Broadway – 1:40 p.m., three thieves take iPhone from engineering student (see above).
May 6, unit block of North Washington St. – Student reported that she was walking at about 8:10 p.m. and had just finished using her white iPhone when she was approached from the front by a suspect who did not speak, but suddenly punched her in the face and pushed her to the ground. The suspect then took her phone from her hand and ran south on Washington Street.
May 13, unit block of South Washington St. – About 8 p.m., a 23-year-old female victim struck on right side of face by teenager in a blue sweatshirt who took her cellphone. She was approached by an unknown black male who punched her in the right side of the face with a closed fist. Victim “advised that she fell to the ground and the unknown male stole her white iPhone which was in her hand at the time of the incident.” She said he didn’t say anything to her and he afterwards fled on foot into the alley located on the east side of the street and then headed northbound toward Baltimore St.
June 27, 1300 block of East Monument St. – 12:04 a.m., a Johns Hopkins employee walking westbound is assaulted by three males who knocked him to the ground. While he was] on the ground one of the suspects removed a Kindle Fire from the victim’s pants pocket.
July 14, 900 block of North Wolfe St. – 11:20 p.m. A student reported that he was loading property into his vehicle when he was approached by a group of five male juveniles. Two approached the victim and asked to use his cellphone. The victim stated that he did not have a cellphone. The suspects abruptly began to punch the victim about the body and knocked him to the ground. The suspects then removed the victim’s phone from his person and fled east on Eager Street.
July 17, near entrance of 620 N. Caroline St. – An employee said she was approached at about 12:15 p.m. by a male juvenile who asked to use the water fountain inside the building. She allowed him to use fountain but when she turned toward the building, the juvenile snatched phone out of her hand and fled northbound on Caroline St.
July 17, 800 block of N. Wolfe St. – An employee walking north was approached from behind at about 12:45 by 2 male juveniles. One snatched the phone from her hand. The two fled east on Ashland St.
August 8, unit block of N. Broadway – An employee walking northbound at about 10:30 p.m. was approached by a group male and female teens. They “struck the victim in the face with a closed fist” suspects fled (no phone taken).
August 22, Rutland Ave between Madison St. and Ashland Ave. – A Kennedy Kreiger employee was approached from behind by a group of male juveniles. One of them snatched her phone and ran off, northwest away from the campus.
August 23, 800 block of E. Belvedere Ave. – iPhone and cash stolen by man who pushed the pedestrian down and pointed a handgun at him.
August 28, 3500 block N. Charles St. – At about 11:40 p.m., near Hopkins’ Homewood campus, four students were approached by two men, one of whom displayed a gun. The men, who were wearing black bandanas over their faces, took cellphones, money and other items from the women and fled by car toward University Parkway.
Baltimore County Incidents
August 18, 7200 block of Bridgewood Road – Victim was walking in an alley when a car driven by two suspects drove up. One of the suspects put a cord around the victim’s neck and demanded his cellphone, which the victim gave him. Both suspects fled on foot.
August 19, Middleborough Road at Foxchase Lane – Victim was walking home from work just after midnight when two suspects knocked her down and took her cellphone. The victim went home, and she and her mother went searching for the suspects. As they drove up to the suspects at Foxchase near Middleborough, one of them fired shots at the victim’s vehicle.
August 20, Bosley and Chesapeake avenues – Two suspects approached victim at about 9:10 p.m. and demanded her cellphone. They fled without taking anything when a vehicle pulled up.
August 21, Dalton and Linkside roads – At 5:24 p.m., several suspects approached victim and demanded his cellphone, Two 17-year-old males were arrested nearby. Another suspect was not apprehended.
August 23, York Rd. and Burke Ave. – Victim approached at 3:45 a.m. and assaulted. Cellphone taken.
Washington D.C. Incidents
Three D.C. area men pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges stemming from multiple robberies and other crimes committed earlier this year in a series of attacks at Metro Stations, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen and Cathy L. Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, announced.
The three men pleading guilty included Anthony J. Doggett, 20, of Suitland; Desean Floyd, 19, of Oxon Hill; and Dominique C. Jones, 20, of Washington D.C.
The members of their group went out in teams, looked for victims who might have expensive cellphones and, when they encountered resistance, assaulted the victims, according to the joint press release. The group committed crimes in the Adams Morgan, L’Enfant Plaza and Stadium Armory areas.
“The defendants sold stolen phones for a profit, on the street or to an ecoATM machine and split the proceeds,” the release said. Among the crimes it described:
Feb. 3, 1300 Block of Q Street NW – The men assaulted the victim, causing him to fall to the ground, and when he tried to defend himself, the defendants repeatedly punched him in his head and body. They then took his iPhone and wallet and fled the scene. Doggett sold the stolen iPhone to an Eco-ATM machine at the Pentagon City Mall and received $300 for it. The defendants split the proceeds from the sale of the stolen phone.
Feb. 5, 19th St. and Constitution Ave. NE – At about 8 p.m., Doggett and Floyd held a young couple at gunpoint, ordering them to get down on their knees and surrender their property. A third victim wandered into this “robbery-in-progress” and was also robbed at gunpoint. The group met at an abandoned house nearby to “wipe” the stolen phones, clearing the personal settings and returning the phones to factory settings to ensure that police could not track the stolen property.
Feb. 10, L’ Enfant Plaza Metro Station – Doggett and Floyd spotted an early-morning transit rider waiting for the Metro, looking at his iPhone. One of the men snatched the victim’s phone from his hand, another intentionally got in his way and, when the victim tried to follow them, a third began to punch him. Doggett later sold the victim’s phone at the ecoATM at the Pentagon City Mall, receiving $300 for it. He, Floyd and the other individual split the proceeds.
– Theo Epstein contributed to this story