An Innocent Thief

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Several years ago when I was a Robbery Detective in Austin, Texas, I had an interesting case with a thief. In Texas, a robbery is basically a theft plus violence. So the Hamburglar breaks into the store and steals hamburgers (burglary since he broke into a building), the Hamtheif walks into the open store and takes a burger without paying, and the Hamrobber puts a gun in your face and demands all of the hamburgers. Back to the story.

I arrived at work one morning and was told officers made an arrest of a robber a few hours previously and that I needed to go interview him in the jail. I looked for the case report and officer video but the case was so new that neither had been uploaded yet. The affidavit for arrest of the suspect was available. An affidavit for arrest is the sworn document that has to be accepted by a Judge in order to hold an individual for charges. It’s generally an abbreviated accounting of what happened based on witness statements and evidence; ‘just the facts’. In the affidavit, the officers reported that our victim claimed he was driving home at three am and stopped on the side of the road to relieve himself. The victim claimed that while urinating next to his vehicle, he was approached by a male (no description) who pulled a knife and demanded his phone. The victim said that he handed over his phone and the suspect fled on foot. The victim stated he drove home, got another cell phone, drove back to the area he was robbed and called police. While with police he used ‘Find My iPhone’ to locate his phone. With the help of police he was able to locate the suspect who was taken into custody. The suspect had the victim’s phone but no weapon of any kind. The suspect was arrested and booked for Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon.

I’ll talk about the victim’s version of events later but first we continue the story.

When I arrived at the jail to interview the suspect I found that he wasn’t eager to talk. I read him the Miranda warning and after he signed the card saying he understood his rights and verbally acknowledged his rights, we began to talk. I asked him for his version of events and he told me he took the phone and got caught. He mentioned that he’d never been interviewed by detectives before for this kind of thing. I mentioned that he didn’t have any prior robberies on his record, just minor thefts and that might explain why no detective ever paid him a visit. He perked up when he heard ‘robbery’. He asked what the victim told police and what his charge was. Generally speaking it’s not a good idea to tell a suspect details about a victim or other suspect’s version of events because that pollute their memory, implant false memories, or given them an advantage on things not discovered. I told him something like “the victim told us his version of events and what you did to him.” This lit a fire in the suspect who loudly proclaimed “I’m a thief but I’m not a fucking robber!”

The suspect said he was at a strip club sitting at a table when he noticed the victim leave his phone at the table next to him as the victim walked away to go smoke with one of the entertainers. The suspect mentioned that he knew the smoking area was a few minutes walk from the tables and most people stayed down there for about 10 minutes to smoke. Seeing the phone, he grabbed it and walked out of the club. He said about an hour later he was confronted by police and arrested. He named the strip club and told us the timeframe of what happened, and detailed the location and, what he was wearing. After finishing my interview with the victim, I went to the strip club and reviewed the video evidence for myself before taking a copy for the case file. Sure enough, the suspect was right. He took the phone and walked out. This was a theft. There was no evidence of the victim and suspect ever interacting at any point.

Because of the way Texas law works, if the suspect had been charged with a theft it would have been a felony due to his prior convictions. In this specific case however, I talked to the District Attorney’s office and we dropped all charges since he was the only one telling the truth. No one likes robbers and everyone hates liars. More importantly, if a person is shown to be a liar then their testimony in court is worthless and it’s extremely difficult to prosecute a case. No matter how bad the crime, if the victim lies about what happened the case has little chance of moving forward. In this case, the victim straight up lied. The victim refused to come in for an interview with me so I never got to hear things straight from him but I was able to watch the Officer’s video and read their reports. It was just like the affidavit. He was later charged with filing a false police report.

Let’s take a look at the flags from the victim’s version of events using the Cotton Eye Joe method I wrote about previously:

  • Where are you coming from?: When officers asked the victim where he was coming from, he didn’t have an answer. This is a giant red flag. Unless you have amnesia you should know where you are coming from.
  • Where are you going?: He was going home at three am.

If you recall from the version of events given to officers from the victim, his story revolves around not knowing or refusing to say where he came from, then stopping on the side of the road to urinate when he was robbed by an unknown male. The details were very light and this is normal for fabricated stories. The officers on scene were relatively new, have lots of calls to take, and generally don’t have as much experience or training with lying victims as most detectives do. Had this victim been interviewed by someone who was better at dissecting the truth, his obvious inconsistencies would have been more readily identified. Make no mistake, the victim really was the victim of a crime. His phone was stolen. While I can’t know why he lied I’ve found that it’s relatively common for people to lie about things that make them look bad to friends and loved ones. It’s entirely possible that the victim thought he would be judged by his wife for being at a strip club if she found out about the theft so decided to omit that portion of the story. By omitting where the event actually occurred he had to fabricate how the phone was stolen, hence the ‘stopping to pee’ part. But then, how does the phone (and not his wallet, vehicle, or anything else?) get stolen; simple, he is robbed for *just* the phone. Put yourself in the place of an actual robber on the side of the road (this is not really a thing but go with me here). If you are going to commit an Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon are you going to ask for only the phone and not take a wallet or the vehicle? It doesn’t make sense.

Asking the basic questions, thinking through the events logically, and putting yourself in the shoes of victim and suspect can really help you dissect the truth of a situation. More next time.