By Vinnie the Fish © 2005
"I wanted to thank you once again for helping us put a criminal in jail," were the parting remarks from the police officer before we ended our conversation.
It was Friday, September 23, 2005 and the alarm clock radio read 8:03am. Elizabeth and I had had a conversation the night before as to how we should start getting up early before work to get at least 30 minutes of cardio in to start getting back into shape. I crawled out of bed, found my running shoes, threw on my clothes half awake and set out towards the Starbucks that Elizabeth manages on foot which is a good hour power walk away. The morning started out just like any other Friday: grande iced coffee no classic with two pumps of white mocha from Starbucks, run some errands, quick trip to the DMV, then back to the apartment before we head out for the day.
As we arrived at the apartment, a 20-something guy walks towards us wearing a black t-shirt and pajama bottoms looking visibly distraught and clutching his cell phone. He asked us if we live in the building and begins to tell us of the events of his morning that have already put him on Tilt. He lives two floors above us on the 3rd floor and arrived home around 6:30 this morning after working the graveyard shift. While he was at home asleep, someone had broken into this apartment and stolen his laptop before he chased the burglar out of his apartment. He asked if we saw anyone running around the complex and to keep an eye out. Oddly enough we'd heard from one of the apartment complex employees that there had been several car thefts and burglaries in the complex within the past few months. The management had also sent out a disturbing memo to all residents concerning safety precautions when entering/exiting cars and apartments.
Worried that we, too, may have been burglarized, we searched our apartment for any signs of a break in, if anything seemed missing or out of place. To our relief nothing was different from how we'd left the apartment that morning. While in mid-conversation with Elizabeth, I happened to be looking out the window towards the parking lot that separates our building from the next. I saw a man running at full speed away from the complex entrances in between one of the buildings carrying a black laptop bag or messenger bag with him. Before I had a chance to speak I made a mad dash for the door and ran out after the guy thinking that this odd behavior made him the guy who had broken into my neighbor's apartment.
As I ran into the street parking lot, I saw a maintenance guy on a golf cart on his walkie talkie with a body expression that could only mean that he was trying to locate the guy who just ran past him at the end of the block. I yelled out asking him if he was looking for a guy running this way as he replied yes. I told him I saw him run this way toward building J and he relayed the message to the other workers. As we circled the buildings in that general direction at the back of the complex, the number of people searching for this guy grew to six maintenance employees and five Pleasanton police officers on foot and in squad cars along with me. When one of the officers approached me in his squad car I told him I had seen the suspect run past my apartment window in the direction of building J and gave him a very detailed description of what the guy looked like: white male, 5'7" - 5'10", spiked light brown hair, 160-180 lbs wearing a grey t-shirt with a large red design on the back, light or tan colored denim jeans and carrying a black laptop bag or messenger bag. I also told him I had spoken to the guy whose apartment had been broken into and that's why I reacted so quickly after the suspect.
After circling the building three times I noticed that the maintenance workers began stationing themselves in places around the buildings to keep an eye out for the suspect. I looked behind a few bushes and dumpsters for any sort of hiding place that this guy may have either stashed the laptop bag or may have holed himself up. As a cleaning van approached for an industrial vacuuming company who contracts work for the complex I noticed something moving on the second story balcony which leads to the front door of an apartment in building J some 20 yards away. The suspect was hunched over looking at the van when I noticed the grey t-shirt he was wearing with the red designed logo on the back. I yelled out to the other maintenance workers and police that this is the guy right here, "He's over here! I see him, he's over here!"
Worried that he had been identified, he started to walk down the balcony stairs, saying that he’s the not the guy, and that he has no idea what I'm talking about. I noticed he was wearing red basketball shorts t and was without the black bag; however he was still wearing the easily identifiable grey t-shirt with the big red logo on his back. I started to walk towards the guy as he broke out into a run further into the complex away from the posse now approaching him yelling to just stay put, not to run. When he began running at full speed I had no doubt that this was the guy everyone was searching for, but I could not ascertain if he had any weapons on him like a knife or gun.
Feeling the best that I could do without putting myself in harm's way was to chase after him, point out his location to the police and flush him out of hiding, much like a hunting dog working the brush for birds on a hunt. Given the fact that he had a five-second head start on me, I was able to catch up to him as he turned the corner of the next building deeper into the complex. When I turned the corner after him, now 15 feet away, our eyes met as he tried to hide within one of the apartment balconies on the first floor. Knowing that this hiding place wasn't good, he fumbled back over into the street as I yelled to the squad car at the end of the row, "He's over here!" He once again yelled to me that he's not the guy and that he didn’t do anything as he tried to run in between the buildings. What he didn't see around the corner was one of the maintenance workers named Juan heading towards us down that corridor in the direction he was running. I yelled out, "He's coming your way! He's coming right at you!"
Before the suspect knew what happened he ran face first into Juan who tried reluctantly to get the guy to stop running and stay where he was. As the suspect began to struggle I knew that I had to act fast, or else Juan was going to be in a world of hurt if the suspect had a weapon. As Juan tried to block the suspect from running past him he tried to grab him around the arm and body while protecting himself from harm. As the suspect began to stumble over his own feet, I ran in to assist Juan with apprehending the suspect by jamming my knee into the guy's body, tackling him and laying on top of him holding his arms down so he could not get away. Juan was then able to get the guy into a head lock with his right arm now securely around the suspect's neck from behind as I pinned him down with my entire body weight. In the back of my mind I could hear my mom’s voice warning me to be careful that this guy could be a drug user and have a hypodermic needle in his pocket, but for some reason the need to subdue him was far greater than my own need for self preservation.
The suspect began to yell for help and plead that he didn't do anything and that he was having trouble breathing, hoping for some way to escape. A few short minutes later a Pleasanton police officer was on scene where I handed him the suspect's left arm as he performed the standard arm twist to subdue him and snap on the handcuffs. As both Juan and I released the suspect to the police officer, the maintenance staff and I exchanged high fives that we had caught the burglar. Shortly after, I pulled one of the police officers away and told him the details of which I was aware. I lead the officer to the second story balcony where I had seen the suspect hiding in building J and the ground floor balcony that he tried to hide in when I was chasing him. I also mentioned that I thought I saw him drop or toss something thinking that he may have been ditching drugs.
On the balcony we found a green jacket stuffed on top of a pair of tan denim jeans and a black back pack underneath the clothes with white lettering that said “Hurley” on the front. This was similar to the pants I had seen him wearing and the bag he was carrying as he passed by my window. The officer decided to leave the evidence in place and allow the other officers to continue the evidence gathering for the events that had unfolded. Feeling confident that the police had everything they needed, I told one of the maintenance workers my apartment number and to come get me if they needed anything else. I headed back to my apartment and told Elizabeth the story in complete disbelief of events on what had started out as such an ordinary day.
With the adrenaline pumping through my veins like a freight train, I decided that I couldn’t sit still in the apartment and that I had to work it off as I cleaned out the back of my car with this new found initiative. Having put this off for several weeks, it seemed like the only thing that I could do to help calm myself down without driving Elizabeth crazy with my anxiety. While cleaning the car I noticed a fire truck and an ambulance heading towards the direction in which we had apprehended the suspect in the back of the complex. I also saw the cute blonde in my building, whom I later learned was named Ashley, walk out with a Pleasanton police officer to his squad car and drive away most likely to identify the suspect. Shortly afterwards one of the maintenance guys came by the apartment as Elizabeth and I were outside talking and said the police wanted to get my information at building J.
I headed back to the balcony where I saw a detective holding a digital camera, taking photos of the evidence spread out on the ground. I gave my information and statement to the officers going into great detail about the events that had unfolded that day as calmly and clearly as I could. I specifically mentioned that I had seen the suspect wearing the jeans that had been found on the ground, carrying a black bag and the easily identifiable t-shirt run past my window before I ran after him. I also mentioned that I flushed the guy from his hiding place and thought I saw him ditch some sort of object, maybe drugs, a wallet or some sort of evidence, as he tried to scale the small balcony wall when I turned the corner chasing him. When I concluded my testimony to the police officers I noticed the officer to whom I had given my initial description of the suspect in the squad car was walking up the stairs with Ashley to identify the evidence. The officer approached me with a big smile on his face and shook my hand calling me "Deputy" which I thought was very amusing.
Just as I was leaving, I overheard Ashley say to the three officers on the balcony in complete disbelief that the now dirty backpack being photographed was her backpack and inside was her laptop which appeared to be undamaged. A sense of relief seemed to fall over her as she now had everything that was stolen from her returned... well almost everything. Sensing that the stressful situation was over in an otherwise uncommon happy ending I joked with one of the officers, "I guess it's a good thing I had my running shoes on."
The one thing that can never be replaced in these situations is the sense of protection or security that signifies home to each and every one of us. This sense of security was taken away from every resident in the complex upon hearing that there had been a series of thefts in our small community. Although the items taken could easily be replaced, that sense of security is something that leaves a lasting impression for years to come. Looking back now at the split second reaction on my part as I saw the out of place stranger running through the complex, the decision to chase after him was fueled by an internal need to fight back against the faceless burglar(s) who had stolen this sense of security and fight back against the fear knowing that I had the ability to do something right here, right now with this situation.
Later that day I ran into one of my neighbors who works at the front desk of the apartment complex. He summed this experience most appropriately, "Congratulations, but that was really stupid of both you and Juan."
I replied, "I know... trust me I know. As an IT Guy I spend my entire day thinking about everything that could go wrong and planning for each one. However, if I had it to do over again, I would make the same decisions in a heart beat. That's just who I am."
Vinnie The Fish is a bass fisherman from Pleasanton, California.