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Here's how a slick laptop thief was foiled in Tampa

Smart, shrewd,determined. A serial thief was portrayed as all these. Here's how his alleged crime spree unraveled after a stop in Tampa.

By Scott Barancik, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007


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A surveillance photo shows Eric Almly leaving an office building with bags of laptops, Milwaukee police say.

In March, a clean-cut stranger wearing khaki pants and a polo shirt strolled into the Tampa headquarters of Outback Steakhouse, mingled with company staff until they left for the day and walked out with 11 laptop computers crammed into his shoulder bag.

When a security guard stopped him in the parking lot, the gifted liar convinced him he was out for a jog. Later, at his $1,800-a-month apartment along Miami Beach, the burglar erased the laptops' hard drives and began selling them via services like eBay, where he had earned a 99.4 percent customer-satisfaction rating and tens of thousands of dollars in profit.

"It's pretty rare that you come across a smart thief," Tampa Police Detective Larry Brass said. "Typically it's just, 'Kick in a window, grab what you can and go.' "

Outback isn't his only alleged victim. Dubbed the "Khaki Bandit" in Milwaukee, pictured on "wanted" leaflets in central Colorado, shown on TV news reports robbing the Miami headquarters of Burger King Corp. and FedEx Corp., the laptop thief has been investigated in more than two dozen heists across five states, including the recent theft of 10 laptops from Tampa's Sykes Enterprises Inc.

But Outback parent OSI Restaurant Partners may have been his undoing. Thanks in part to the company's use of a clever antitheft device, Brass made an arrest in April. Evidence collected at the Miami Beach condo helped link some of the other unsolved burglaries to the same man: Eric Almly, a 33-year-old career criminal from Duluth, Minn., now awaiting trial in a Miami jail. Almly and his lawyers declined to comment.

Though his plain features defy Hollywood's idea of a con artist - think Leonardo DiCaprio's rakish character in Catch Me If You Can - Almly has the right resume. A determined thief since his mid teens, he has made a near science of stealing and selling laptops over the past five years. He's even developed some acting skills, if you consider perpetrating a faceless office-worker a form of theater.

"This is a very intelligent young man," an Almly defense attorney said in 1993, moments after the 18-year-old had been sentenced to serve one year on a work farm. "If he can put his intelligence to positive uses, then the sky's the limit."

Practice, practice, practice

Almly, born in 1974 to 22-year-old Mary Almly, wasn't always such a smooth operator.

In his youth, he broke into buildings with a hammer and screwdriver, sometimes in broad daylight. He swore belligerently at a police officer who detained him. He wore clothes a witness could easily remember; in one early case, a convenience-store surveillance video captured him wearing a University of Kansas sweatshirt that turned up later in a search of his home.

After a Duluth jury acquitted him of a home-burglary charge in 1992, Almly apparently didn't lay low. A week later he was back in jail, charged with three break-ins and suspected of eight more, according to a front-page article in the Duluth News Tribune. (Prosecutor records on the outcome of those charges are no longer available.)

Almly could be childishly impulsive. After a 1995 home burglary in which he found a Compaq laptop computer - quite possibly the first laptop he owned - he picked up a pay phone and called the victim to gloat. When he called again minutes later to apologize, the victim hung up and dialed *69. An arrest was made.

A three-year prison sentence for four separate crimes stopped Almly temporarily, but it didn't reform him. Instead, he emerged a more sophisticated and patient criminal. The new Almly sauntered into office buildings during business hours, right behind an employee carrying a magnetic access card. He trimmed his sandy-blond hair short, traded his jeans and Nike sneakers for business-casual threads, and began cloaking his volatile personality with a chipper, nonthreatening veneer.

Shrewdly, he began focusing on laptops. Lightweight and slim, easy to conceal, cheap to mail and a breeze to sell, they are, ounce for ounce, among the most valuable items in any corporate office. Almly sold many of the units to shady brokers in overseas locales such as Latvia; a manifest kept at the U.S. Post Office in Carlsbad, Calif., showed he had sent 35 packages to Taiwan in 2004 under the alias Jeffrey Scott Siegle and the corporate name NBE Ventures. Almly sold many of the remaining computers on eBay via the online name LaptopDlr55.

"Excellent product, fast shipping, fast feedback," one satisfied eBay buyer commented, a day before Almly's April arrest.

Two faces

Like most adults, Eric Almly is two people.

In his private life, he is quirky, emotional, demanding and sometimes mean. At work, he is professional, civilized and unflappable, his body temperature hovering somewhere between Frappucino and absolute zero. Neither half is ever fully in charge.

Witnesses and police say the high-school dropout is eerily good at projecting calm, even in stressful situations. At Outback, one employee who observed him loitering became suspicious. "She was about to confront him, but he turned as if he was speaking to someone in a cubicle, so her alarm went down," said Brass, the Tampa detective. "That's the thing about these guys, they're actors."

In Phoenix, legal assistant Miriam Foulk said she bumped into Almly one evening in 2002 while preparing to leave her law firm. If he had shown fear, she might have thought he was up to no good. Instead of sprinting away or reacting violently, though, he "just smiled, didn't say anything and kept going" deeper into the office. Three laptops were missing the next morning.

Mary Kim Caldito had a similar encounter last year at her Greenwood Village, Colo., law firm. She was working late one Friday night when a man she thinks was Almly started to enter her office but, seeing her, backed away. "I said, 'Can I help you?' He said, 'No, I'm just looking for Steve.' Steve was our I.T. guy's name at the time, so I didn't think anything of it," Caldito recalled. This time, Almly retraced his steps and left the office with the three laptops he had pinched.

Almly has never been caught in the act. Until Tampa, most of his arrests had come about as much from his mistakes as from shrewd police work. At the Carlsbad, Calif., post office where Almly mailed laptops to Taiwan, for example, Almly was widely disliked.

"They said he was a real jerk," Carlsbad Police Sgt. Mickey Williams said. "He actually threatened to fight one of the clerks over something." So when local police distributed leaflets with Almly's photo, the postal workers immediately recognized him, and they were more than happy to call 911 the next time he came in.

To catch a (laptop) thief

Under normal circumstances, the chances of catching Outback's burglar would be slim. He left no usable fingerprints. There was no surveillance video of him. Because eBay does not require sellers to list a computer's serial number, the laptops would disappear without a trace.

Meanwhile, Outback officials were justifiably worried. What if the laptops contained proprietary information about the company's future plans? What if a disgruntled ex-employee were to give a laptop to a competitor, or to extort money from the company? What if key files were not backed up?

Almly, of course, was not interested in the laptops' contents, and Outback had an ace up its sleeve. Nine of its 11 stolen laptops had been equipped with security software that transmits a stolen computer's physical location the moment a thief accesses the Internet with it. With that information, a nationwide crime spree began to unravel.

Brass obtained a search warrant for Almly's Miami Beach condo. There, he found some of the Outback laptops, and several others he checked against an FBI database of stolen property. One turned out to have been stolen in Milwaukee, another in Naples.

With Almly's name and photo in hand, Brass issued an alert to police departments across the country. One, Miami-Dade, matched the photo to surveillance video from the burglaries at Burger King, FedEx and two other companies and re-arrested Almly in his Miami jail cell.

Brass subpoenaed Almly's eBay transaction records, which allowed him to track down more stolen laptops. The canny thief never knew what hit him.

"He just figured that a corporation like Outback would kind of write it off, absorb the loss and move on from there," Brass said.

One last lie

Evelyn Iacovaccio, Almly's girlfriend in South Florida, doesn't want an article written about him. All she knows about his past is what he's told her and what little she's gotten from Googling him. She wants to help him move beyond the past.

They talk often. She does things he can't, like pick up his stuff from the Miami Beach condo and monitor his e-mail. "He's rethinking his life right now," she says. "He just wants to put everything behind him, and look into the future."

A Google search on "Eric Almly" doesn't pull up a 1993 Duluth News Tribune article about an Almly sentencing hearing. According to the article, the judge told Almly to "stop blaming other people for your deeds." The prosecutor said, "It is our belief that he will reoffend." Almly said, "I guarantee I have set educational and moral goals."

His probation officer said he had heard Almly make the same pledge twice before. "Before you know it, he's out of jail and reoffending again. It's frustrating."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Key events in the life of Eric Almly

1974: Born in Duluth, Minn.

1992: Because of a lengthy juvenile record, Almly is tried as an adult on a charge related to a residential burglary in Duluth; jury acquits. Is arrested a week later after 11 homes are broken into.

1993: Sentenced to one year on Minnesota work farm. "Stop blaming other people for your deeds," judge thunders.

1995: Allegedly steals Compaq laptop computer from occupied home in Duluth. Calls victim from pay phone to taunt - and, in a second call, to apologize.

1996: A day after posting bail, allegedly tries to burglarize a residence, church, computer store and other businesses. Temporarily eludes Duluth police by scaling retaining wall and dropping 30 feet to snow-covered ground.

1997: Placed on work release while serving three-year prison sentence in Minnesota. Absconds; is recaptured.

2002: Indicted in Maricopa County, Ariz., but is no-show at subsequent hearing; bench warrant issued. Case eventually dismissed for lack of speedy prosecution.

2003: Allegedly steals laptops from six businesses in Phoenix and Scottsdale; grand jury indicts Almly, a.k.a. Matthew William Cournoyer, on 16 counts.

2005: Gets two-year sentence for stealing laptops from Carlsbad, Calif., businesses. Postal workers who had helped "egotistical jerk" - a.k.a. Jeffrey Scott Siegle - mail laptops to Taiwan happily testify.

2006: Hit-and-run accident leads to high-speed chase by San Diego police; stolen laptops found in car. Skips pretrial hearing; bench warrant issued.

2007: Arrested at Miami Beach condo in burglary of Outback Steakhouse parent OSI Restaurant Partners in Tampa. Laptops on premises traced to thefts in Naples and Milwaukee. While in Miami jail awaiting extradition to Tampa, is charged with four local burglaries.

Protect your laptops, Corporate America

The theft of a corporate laptop can be agonizing.

It's not just the replacement cost. Imagine losing a laptop that contained inside information on a pending merger, details of a failed workplace romance, confidential customer data or a PowerPoint presentation you never backed up.

Eric Almly's victims have been relatively fortunate. Instead of exploiting the data on their computers, he typically erases it in preparation for resale. Still, the statistics on laptop theft are troubling:

- In 2004, the most recent year for which there were data, an estimated 2-million laptops were stolen in the United States. Of those, 97 percent were never recovered.

- A 2006 survey of information security personnel by the Ponemon Institute found that 81 percent worked at companies that lost one or more laptops containing sensitive information the prior year.

- More than half of identity-theft related data breaches are caused by the loss or theft of laptops or other data-storage mediums, according to Symantec and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

So what can businesses do to minimize the potential harm from a stolen laptop?

The most important step, of course, is to prevent theft. Companies should review their office- and laptop-security procedures with private or police security experts.

The next best thing is to stop the thief from misusing a stolen computer's contents - and to catch the thief.

Larry Brass, the Tampa Police detective who arrested Eric Almly this spring, says he's not permitted to endorse a particular product. But he says if Outback's laptops were not outfitted with software called Computrace LoJack for Laptops, made by Absolute Software, there is "no question" Almly would be walking free today.

Here is how it works: after a computer is stolen, the victim notifies Absolute's recovery team. When the thief accesses the Internet via that computer, the Computrace software on his computer silently broadcasts information that allows the team to determine his physical location.

With a street address in hand, police can make an arrest. The corporate version of the software gives subscribers the ability to remotely delete sensitive information from a computer.

"Do you know how many Dell laptops are for sale on eBay right now? And they're not required to list serial numbers," Brass says. "The reason that case has been solved is because of that software."

How Almly stole so many laptops

Eric Almly has declined to discuss his criminal history, but a lot can be inferred about his modus operandi from police reports, detectives and witnesses. Here are some of Almly's preferred methods:

Choose targets with care. He went to neighborhoods, cities or states where he was not recognized. He sought large corporate offices to blend in with their large staffs and to find lots of laptops. When possible, he scheduled multiple burglaries for a single building that housing more than one company.

Know the victims. He observed his targets in advance and paid attention to how employees dressed, whether they needed magnetic passes to enter and move about the building, and what time most of them left for the day.

Time the arrival. He entered a business on the heels of an employee who could hold open a security door. He often arrived at about 4 p.m., a busy time of day that let him blend with the staff and exploit a time period when receptionists and assistants left for the day, but beefed-up nighttime security measures had not kicked in. He acted like he belonged.

Make the move. When the office emptied, he went looking for laptops room by room. He kept an eye out for magnetic access cards, too. He had an alibi in case he was confronted. When done, he put the laptops in his shoulder bags - he would carry one into the building with a second bag inside it - and go.

Move the product. He drove or mailed laptops back to his temporary home. He prepared them for sale by erasing the prior owner's data and installing or updating critical software.

How the story was written

Research for this article fell into two broad categories: interviews police officers, prosecutors and witnesses, and printed materials (police reports, court records, newspaper articles and Internet message boards). Information about Eric Almly's upbringing and personal life was scant. Almly declined multiple opportunities to talk. So did his two South Florida lawyers, defense attorney Teresa Williams and former Miami-Dade narcotics prosecutor David Macey. Family members who refused to comment included Almly's mother, Mary Almly; his stepfather, Paul Tynjala; his stepsister, Casey Korte; and a maternal aunt, Glenda Viche. Information about Almly's father was not available. Several outsiders -Almly's Miami Beach landlord, the attorney for one of his corporate victims - spoke freely but admitted knowing relatively little about him. His girlfriend, Evelyn Iacovaccio, allowed a brief interview but said she would need Almly's permission before talking at length. She did not return subsequent calls or e-mails.

[Last modified October 26, 2007, 21:20:48]


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