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There's an app for that, too — Tampa cops find stolen iPhones with GPS

Richard Emerson was arrested on grand theft charges after police traced him using an iPhone feature.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

Richard Emerson was arrested on grand theft charges after police traced him using an iPhone feature.

TAMPA — Preparing to board the SheiKra roller coaster at Busch Gardens, mom and stepdaughter put their iPhones in a purse and stuffed it into an unlocked storage bin.

Someone was watching.

The pair sat in the second row, screaming as they swooped over the ride's famed 90-degree drop. It was fun until the end, when 13-year-old Caroline cut her lip open.

In a dash to the first aid station, neither Caroline nor her stepmom noticed a man from the last row moving toward the storage bins.

"I turned around to grab my bag, and it's gone," Jennifer Jensen, 41, said of Friday's incident.

They called Busch Gardens security, which notified Tampa police. Surveillance tapes showed a man exiting the ride, snatching the bag and running away.

Officers found the empty purse in a trash can in a men's restroom.

For a few seconds, the Jensens feared the two $300 phones were gone. All of the sudden, 13-year-old Caroline started jumping up and down.

She had an app for this.

"We can track him! We can track him by GPS!" Caroline told police.

The officers and the Jensens went to an employee break room, where Caroline used an officer's laptop to log into her iPhone's MobileMe account.

MobileMe is a $99 Apple service that automatically updates a phone's calendar or e-mail contacts without being plugged into a computer. It also tracks phones remotely with a global positioning system.

Caroline, who got the iPhone when she was 11, told her parents she needed MobileMe to keep tabs on her busy school schedule. She said she has used the GPS a few times, but never like this.

"I was kind of thinking, 'Oh my God, this is like CSI,' " Caroline said.

A group of about 20 people —the Jensen family, officers and park employees — huddled around the computer.

Within seconds, a Tampa map appeared with a blinking orange dot moving away from the park. "We're thinking to ourselves, there are our cell phones going down the road," Jennifer Jensen said.

The dot left the park, headed down McKinley Drive, headed south of Fowler Avenue and stopped less than 4 miles away from where it started.

Caroline switched to satellite mode, and they were suddenly looking at the outside of the Bentley Court Apartments, 11603 N 22nd St.

Tampa police officers descended, armed with descriptions of the man on the surveillance tape and the Jensens' ringtones.

"Make the call," officers told the Jensens by radio. They dialed their cell numbers from the break room as police listened at the complex.

"We have a suspect in view," police said via radio as they approached a man sitting outside apartment 201.

"The subject quickly put a cell phone into his left front pants pocket," an arrest report states.

Police said Richard Emerson, 25, later admitted to the theft. Officers found the other phone inside his apartment.

"The suspect has been apprehended. The stolen items have been recovered," police radioed in.

The break room went wild.

"Police officers were high-fiving, ride operators were hugging, Caroline was squealing," Jennifer Jensen said. "It was a fun day."

Not for Emerson. He was arrested at about 4:15, just 45 minutes after the reported theft, and taken to the Hillsborough County Jail on charges of grand theft. He was released on $2,000 bail, records show.

It was Emerson's 19th arrest in the state, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Nearly all of his previous charges were for larceny or probation violation.

Busch Gardens does not plan to change security measures. The park posts signs alerting people to the risk, and employees keep careful watch, a spokesperson said.

The Jensens, who live in New York but have a second home in Tampa, flew back north.

But first, Caroline sent a few text messages to friends.

"So I was in Tampa, and I was on a roller coaster, and somebody stole my phone. Long story short, I used GPS, tracked the guy down and put him in jail." Kim Wilmath can be reached at or (813) 226-3386.

There's an app for that, too — Tampa cops find stolen iPhones with GPS 02/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 12:30pm]
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