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Case of stolen laptops reads like Hollywood script

TAMPA — The ping of a cell phone, the surveillance image of a car near an abandoned warehouse, an e-mail address attached to a SunPass transponder.

Those technological tools have been used by investigators as they try to crack the case of thousands of laptop computers stolen from a contractor for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

In a search warrant, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office detective details recent efforts aimed at nabbing the people responsible for breaking into the iGov Technologies office on Palm River Road on March 6.

Video surveillance caught up to seven masked intruders loading more than 3,000 Panasonic Toughbook laptops into two waiting semitrailer trucks over nine hours.

If the heist sounds like something out of a spy movie, so does the response from law enforcement, whose efforts appear to have turned up $4.2 million in stolen laptops, along with leads on a guy named "Charley."

Much about the crime remains closely guarded by the Sheriff's Office, which has declined to comment on the case. The break-in was not made public when it happened.

But detectives eventually must file copies of executed search warrants with the Hills­borough clerk of the Circuit Court. If not sealed, they become public record. That is how the St. Petersburg Times unearthed the case this week, after obtaining a June 23 warrant.

Another such warrant, dated June 2, weaves a tale of mystery, action and intrigue: The case begins in Tampa but picks up in Miami where the FBI gets a tip that a transaction is about to go down. Someone is going to buy stolen laptop computers.

Multiple law enforcement agencies join forces and nab two people. (The Times is withholding their identities because the investigation is ongoing.)

In an abandoned warehouse, investigators discover a cache of computers, the warrant states.

They learn about a guy named "Charley" and manage to score his cell phone number.

That's when the case goes high tech. Detectives note that Charley's cell phone pings mostly off a certain tower, often late at night and early in the morning. They surmise he lives nearby.

They pull video surveillance from outside the abandoned warehouse and learn that every time Charley's cell phone pings off the tower near the warehouse, a blue Smart Fortwo car pulls up to the warehouse.

In addition, surveillance video from March 7 showed semitrailer trucks matching trucks used in the iGov theft arriving at the warehouse. Also arriving at the warehouse: the blue Smart car.

Authorities execute a search warrant at the warehouse where they find a bank deposit slip with a business name. The business owner lives near Charley's cell tower.

On May 25, detectives visit the owner's house. A man there opens the garage door. Inside they see a blue Smart car.

In the search warrant, detectives seek account information for an e-mail address linked to a transponder found in the car.

The man who opened the garage door is named Carlos.

He's currently on probation for cargo theft.

Detectives wonder: Could he be Charley?

In this made-for-Hollywood script, the ending has yet to be written.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Case of stolen laptops reads like Hollywood script 07/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2010 12:02am]
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