Lost & Found

The moment when you realize you’ve been robbed? It’s exactly how they show it in the movies. You stand in one place, looking dumbly around the room in the direction of where your most valuable items ought to be. This is where I found myself Sunday morning, as I came downstairs to make breakfast for my daughter.

I actually made it all the way through the living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen before I realized anything was wrong. My first clue was the back door. It was wide open. My dog Gus, always at my side, bounded out the open door like it was the most normal thing in the world, but that was the moment that began one of the most abnormal weeks of my life.

Half an hour later, we were wrapping up the report with a police officer. It appeared that the thieves wedged open our dining room window, after having ripped out the screen, and taken off with as much as they could find in the dining room alone. Laptops, computer hard drives, and all of my wife’s camera equipment. We’re not talking about point-and-shoot, $100 equipment here, either. My wife is a professional photographer who, as fate would have it, had just gotten home from shooting a wedding hours before the burglary. The value of the camera equipment alone reached into the twenty thousands. Adding insult to injury, the thieves also made off with a wallet of memory cards that contained the only copies of wedding photos taken the night before that were in the process of being copied to our backup system.

It’s an awful feeling, knowing people were in your house, rifling through your things and taking what they deemed most valuable for themselves, and it’s crippling when they take away the means by which you make a living. But it’s an altogether different, indescribable feeling of powerlessness when you have to call a couple on the morning after their wedding and tell them that they have no wedding photos. A huge range of emotions washed over me that morning, but watching my wife make that call and seeing what she was going through was the worst of it.

We spent the next 24 hours trying to keep occupied. Retail therapy was our coping mechanism, as we hopped from store to store trying to replace the most essential equipment as quickly as we could. My wife had been holding off on replacing her laptop for several months, so we took this as a sign that it was time. The second laptop was one that I was given by my job, so I knew that would be replaced fairly easily. From there, we stopped at a few electronics stores to buy extra hard drives to back up the already existing backups of past shoots and weddings. There’s nothing like a break-in to renew your commitment to data backup.

But none of this could do anything about the missing memory cards with the wedding photos. That was the loss that was eating at us the most. We compiled a list of serial numbers — fortunately we had most of the boxes in the attic — and printed out fliers with the details to hand out to pawn shops in the area. We included a message in bold at the bottom:

“$500 reward for return of missing memory cards. Cash. No questions asked.”

We passed them out to a few pawn shops, most of which weren’t entirely encouraging about our chances of getting our stuff back, and went home to try to get some rest. We even took to the Internet, posting information about the reward on TwitterFacebook andReddit. Anything we could do to get the word out about these lost wedding photos.

I took work off that next morning. Fortunately, I work for an extremely supportive and understanding organization and my boss said to take as much time as I need. My wife was still beside herself over what happened — mostly because of the lost wedding photos — and I knew she wouldn’t want to be alone. We took the morning to spend time doing things our daughter wanted to do — we went out for breakfast (“panpakes and bekkon!”) and then went to the park. The rest of that day was spent fielding calls from reporters who were interested in getting the scoop about the missing wedding photos. It was a tricky situation, because we desperately wanted to get the word out about the lost photos and the reward that was being offered, but neither of us were in any state to be in front of a camera talking about it. Finally, in the early evening, they managed to ambush our house to ask for an interview. I was on the phone with one reporter, trying to explain why we didn’t want to be on camera, when a different crew convinced my wife to do a quick statement. So that’s how the story came to be featured on the evening news.

The story turned out really well, actually, and it did help spread the word about the reward. A little too well, perhaps. Very early on Tuesday morning, right around 5:30am, we were woken to very persistent knocking on the front door. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper, and this even woke me up. For obvious reasons, I hadn’t gotten much quality sleep the night before, so it took me a while to stumble down to answer the door. I was greeted by a slightly shifty looking, tattooed gentleman who appeared to be in his late twenties.

“Hey, is this the… uh… the house that had that camera stuff robbed?”
“I, uh… I know the lady that has the cards. She’s down on Livingston, but she needs transportation.”

As I said, I was a bit groggy at this point, but even in the cold light of day I’m unsure what “she needs transportation” was actually intended to mean. I told him that was great, and we’d happily meet up with her wherever she liked, but that we would have to work out the arrangements in the morning. I gave him my name and cell phone number and sent him on his way. Little did I know that would be only the beginning of that day’s excitement.

Hours later, sitting in my office, I was going over the long list of items that were stolen with our insurance adjuster. It was about as exciting as you would imagine. Right around the time I was listing off the model number and purchase date of the eighth Nikon lens, my call waiting clicked in: It was my wife, frantically telling me that she had gotten a call from a local camera shop that some men were just there trying to sell what sounded like her equipment. I quickly got off the phone with the adjuster and went outside to meet my wife and drive over to the camera store.

Columbus Camera Group is a new and used camera shop on Ohio State’s campus, less than a mile from our house. The men were gone by the time we got there, but the store owner had managed to write down the serial numbers from the equipment; Sure enough, it was ours. He had also had the forethought to watch them leave and write down a description of the vehicle along with the license plate number. I immediately got on the phone with the burglary squad to give them the details. It was clear that these guys were in the process of actively trying to unload our equipment. Armed with the list of serial numbers and vehicle description, we decided to pay a visit to the rest of the used camera sellers in the area.

Our next stop was Midwest Photo Exchange, another camera shop that was less than a mile from our home. As we approached the store to look for a parking spot, we were abruptly cut off by a pair of police cruisers who pulled to a stop directly in front of the store. We worked our way carefully to the back parking lot and found it littered with store employees on their cell phones; It looked like we may have been just a few steps behind.

Our suspicions were confirmed when we walked into the store and overheard the manager talking with the officers.

“…two big guys. They had a couple of cameras and lenses, and they clearly didn’t know how to use them. It looked like the equipment that was stolen from that wedding photographer this weekend.”

I chimed in explaining who I was, and provided them with the official list of serial numbers to compare. This owner had also managed to copy down the serial numbers, but he even did one better: He was able to pull the memory card that the guys had in one of the cameras and exported all the photos to a local computer! This was the moment when I walked behind the counter and gave this man a hug. The next thing I remember was going with my wife to the computer at the rear of the store to look at the photos and confirm that they were ours. They pulled up the first photo, and then it was my wife’s turn to give out hugs.

As we waited for the images to burn to DVD, the manager began calling other local camera shops that people might go to sell stolen equipment. We listened as all the employees rehashed the story as they remembered it and talked about previous attempts by other people to sell stolen equipment. We marveled over how crazy you would have to be to try to sell stuff like this so quickly, and so close to where it was stolen from. Of course, we asked if they remembered seeing any other memory cards, and nobody had. We were obviously still really close behind these guys, though, and we remained hopeful that the police would catch up with them.

Just as the DVD was finishing, we heard the manager shout from the back office: “It’s them! They’re at World of Photography!” He had just called up another camera shop, a few miles away in Grandview, and the men had just walked in as he was telling them about the situation. The police put out a call on the radio to get to the store, as I heard the manager asking his counterpart to stall the men as long as he could. We held our collective breath for a few minutes until we heard a squawk on the officers’ walkies. I couldn’t make it out, but one of them was kind enough to translate.

“We got ‘em!”

We were told that it may take some time to process everything, but if we wanted to we could head over to the shop and probably take our equipment home with us. I can barely remember the car ride down to Grandview, but it was full of text messages, phone calls, and Facebook status updates. Hope was at an all-time high, but we were trying to throttle it as best as we could until we had those memory cards in our hands.

At the camera store — our third of the day — we were actually able to see the suspects handcuffed and sitting on the ground. It was actually slightly disappointing to see that they looked exactly like as you might expect: Disheveled. Vacant eyes. They looked like they hadn’t showered in about a week. We spent about 45 minutes in our car waiting for them to be loaded into the police van and for the detective to arrive to review everything. Before we had the chance to inspect the equipment, we were asked to give a quick statement to the detective. We went over the burglary again, as well as a basic list of things that had been taken. The detective prefaced the final question with the disclaimer that it was something that he had to officially ask: Did we want to press charges? My wife answered with no hesitation.

“Yes. All of them.”

In the end, we were allowed to look through what they had in the car and confirm that the equipment was ours. It was ours, of course, but unfortunately there was no sign of the memory cards. The police were very helpful, and when we told them about the memory cards and the wedding photos they were incredibly thorough in searching the nooks and crannies of the vehicle, from front to trunk. No luck. That’s not to downplay the incredible victory we had that day. By that afternoon, less than 72 hours after the break-in, we had recovered the bulk of our most expensive equipment, which I feel is more than most burglary victims are able to say.

So here we are, a couple of days later, still hoping for the return of the rest of our stolen items and — more importantly — those missing memory cards. We’re trying to keep optimistic, as the local news and radio outlets continue to spread the word about the reward, but we’re also trying to move on. We’ve taken the one recovered card and begun processing the photos, as well as setting up a new shoot with the newlyweds once they return from their honeymoon. It won’t make up for the loss of the photos documenting their wedding day, surrounded by friends and family who had traveled from all over the country, but it will be a first step in giving them something they can look back on as the beginning of their marriage.

I don’t know where those memory cards are now — maybe they’re in some thief’s apartment, maybe they’re in a pawn shop, or maybe they’re with some woman down on Livingston Avenue. Wherever they are, I do hope eventually someone hears about the reward and contacts us. Because, honestly, all we want is for this young couple just starting out on a life together to have these small mementos of the day they said “I do” to each other. I still have faith in the goodness of people, but we’re keeping this $500 offer on the table just in case someone needs a little more motivation to do the right thing.

The $500 cash, no-questions-asked reward for the return of a dozen CompactFlash memory cards containing wedding photos is still being offered. If you or someone you know has them, please contact Andy Soell at asoell@gmail.com

Additionally, we’d like to say a big “thank you” to the Columbus police for their hard work on the case, to Columbus Camera Group for getting an accurate description of the men with our equipment, to Midwest Photo Exchange for having the presence of mind to copy one of the cards, and toWorld of Photography for stalling the men as long as they did. You all are just a small part of what makes Columbus such a great place to live.

Originally written and published for Medium.com, August 2, 2013