Stolen phone's selfie trail

2014-02-21 12:42
(The Witness)

(The Witness)

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Rowan Philp, The Witness

Durban - Every week, Joe Knott logs onto his computer to check the latest happy snaps apparently taken by the man who robbed him.

Having allegedly burgled the holiday cottage on the KZN South Coast where Knott was staying on 30 December 2013, the man has taken 38 photos to date on a stolen BlackBerry - including pictures apparently of himself, of a happy bride and bridesmaid preparing for a wedding, of the stolen loot, and also of a child parading with Knott’s sunglasses on his face.

Knott said police had advised him to keep the phone active to help trace the culprit, as, unbeknown to the thief, software on the phone automatically uploads every picture he takes to Knott’s Google Drive account. He can also read draft e-mails composed by the man - and, for two days, he was also able to track the robber’s movements using a tracing app.

Murder case

The discovery echoes a chilling incident last year, in which a gang who murdered Wentsel Smit, of Rustenberg in North West, unwittingly uploaded pictures onto Smit’s personal Facebook site, using his smartphone. Smit’s widow, Lynette, alleged to Beeld that the pictures that popped onto her husband’s site were the faces of the killers themselves, who had also wounded her in the attack. No one has yet been arrested in the case.

Knott, 50, a buyer for a Kempton Park construction company, said thieves broke into a holiday cottage near Port Shepstone while he and his wife slept, taking five cellphones, jewellery, cash and ID books.

He said he and his wife were “lucky” to escape harm - since the robbers broke in with a bolt cutter “knowing full well that people were in the house”.

“We think they were disturbed and ran off,” he said.

Two weeks after reporting the crime, he said he was “playing around on my home computer” when he found that pictures taken on his BlackBerry phone after the robbery had dropped into his Google Photos file.

They included a picture of a pair of crossed legs with the stolen items arranged on the bed; and appeared to show a “selfie” of the suspect himself. They also include portraits of older people in formal attire with church pins, playful pictures of the family pet, and, strangely, an advertising-style photo of muscle relaxant products.

Knott said he had “basically come to know” the alleged thief and his family.

“They are ordinary people like you and me, though they clearly like to party outdoors. They wear nice two-piece suits; his parents seem like nice, church-going people - but I don’t think they have any idea about their son, who looks cold and aggressive to me. They should be asking how this new stuff came into the house.”

Knott admitted it was “theoretically possible” that the pictures were taken not by the thief, but by someone who had merely bought or received the stolen phone - but he said evidence of other stolen items in the pictures “makes it obvious this is the guy”.

SA's answer to 'Life of a Stranger Who Stole My Phone'

It is South Africa’s answer to “the story of Hafid” - a blog that publishes pictures of a Middle Eastern man who allegedly stole a German tourist’s smartphone last year, but forgot to switch off its Dropbox application.

The pictures show the same man ice skating, partying with friends, admiring a sports car; and, last week, parading jarringly unfashionable new clothes.

Every week, thousands of followers log in to the tourist’s blog - Life of a Stranger Who Stole My Phone - to see the life of an alleged thief, a Dubai man calling himself “Hafid”, unfold.

Knott said he was also able to trace the robber’s travels for two days, using GPS-tracking software on one of the other stolen phones, before having to blacklist the device.

He claimed that, initially, police “didn’t even ask for the photos to be sent”, but that they had subsequently incorporated the images in their ongoing investigation.

Earlier, police spokesperson Captain Thulani Zwane argued that publication of the pictures “may hinder the investigation”.

But Knott - who is keen to see the recovery of the ID books, in particular - said more than two months had elapsed without clear progress on the case.

“Surely something must come of it and I might even be able to solve the case myself,” he said.

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