Campus laptop thefts leave students pushing for stronger security


Sarah Impola

Several laptop robberies within the last month are under investigation by the Office of Campus Safety & Security and the Chicago Police Department.

By Campus Reporter

A series of laptop thefts on campus have students concerned about their safety inside Columbia buildings and pushing for stronger security measures.

According to an Oct. 7 email sent to the campus community by the Office of Campus Safety & Security, two students’ laptops were stolen out of their hands on separate occasions. The two incidents occurred Oct. 5 at the 623 S. Wabash Ave. Building, and Oct. 7 at the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building.

The Oct. 12 incident involved a student’s laptop theft at the 501 S. State St. Panera Bread restaurant, according to an Oct.13 collegewide email.

A Sept. 8 laptop robbery, which was not reported to the campus community by the Office of Campus Safety & Security, also occurred in the Wabash Campus Building.

The Oct. 7 victim, sophomore cinema art + science major Rialin José, said the perpetrator walked into the room and grabbed her laptop from her hands as she was working inside an office on the third floor of the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building.

“I was in shock,” José said. “I wanted to [chase after him], but my whole body was frozen.”

José said she asked for immediate help from the English Department’s office right across the hall. She added that campus security arrived within five minutes of the incident. 

Despite the quick response, José said the incident left her questioning campus safety.

“I was in a very seemingly secure area of the building,” José said. “To have my property stolen that deep within the building says a lot about how much the campus is safeguarded, or at least that building.”

Senior advertising major Dominique Pasqua suffered an experience similar to José’s on Oct. 5 when she was on the ninth floor of 623 S. Wabash Ave., using her computer between classes. A man approached her from behind, grabbed her laptop and ran down the stairs.

Associate Vice President of Safety & Security Ron Sodini said all of these incidents are still under investigation by his office as well as the Chicago Police Department.

In an Oct. 12 interview with The Chronicle, Sodini said his office was awaiting an assigned CPD detective to hand over the Oct. 5 and Oct. 7 investigation files to, such as surveillance videos, as part of the formal procedures. In a follow-up interview the same day, Sodini added that the detective assigned to the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building incident had reached out to his office and was given the evidence.

Because no arrests have been made, Sodini was unable to say whether or not the laptops were stolen by students.

According to the email sent by the Office of Campus Safety & Security, the offender of the Oct. 5 incident is described as a male, 5’6” to 5’7”, wearing a black baseball hat with a white stripe on the brim, jeans, gym shoes and a backpack.

The Oct. 7 offender is described as an African-American male, 5’8”, slim build, wearing a black baseball hat with white on the brim, a gray hooded sweatshirt with “MK” in white letters on the chest, jeans with holes, gym shoes with white or light-colored tips and a dark backpack.

According to the Oct. 13 email, campus security and CPD are investigating the Oct. 12 incident. At 9:06 p.m., inside the nearby Panera Bread restaurant, an offender grabbed a student’s laptop and ran from the scene

The Oct. 12 offender is described as a male, African-American, 5’8” to 6’, with facial hair, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with “MK” in white lettering on the chest, jeans and a gray backpack with a black zipper piping.

Based on the physical descriptions provided by the victims of the robberies and Columbia’s video surveillance, Sodini said it appears the same suspect is responsible for the Oct. 5, 7 and 12 cases.

Junior cinema art + science major Erin Grote, the Sept. 8 victim, said she thinks it was the same perpetrator who stole her laptop after viewing the recently published surveillance photos.

According to Sodini, his office should have alerted the campus community about the Sept. 8 robbery but did not because they had no video surveillance of the incident and did not want to overwhelm individuals with alerts, which Sodini said could potentially make them less effective.

“In hindsight, we would have felt good about sending an alert on that case, especially since there’s been more than once incident,” Sodini said. 

According to Grote, she was working at the media center of 623 S. Wabash Ave. when a man jumped over the counter, grabbed her laptop from her closed backpack and immediately sprinted.

“It frustrates me that this happened again on campus,” Grote said. “After the first incident with me, I would’ve hoped [Campus Security would’ve said], ‘Oh, we should take these steps to prevent this from happening again.’”

Grote added that campus security arrived quickly—no more than 10 minutes after the incident—but also echoed José’s thoughts about the lack of security.

“It wasn’t like I carelessly left my laptop out and took a stroll around the block,” Grote said. “I was at work. I was in a space I assumed would be safe for me to work.”

Grote said she reached out to the Office of Campus Safety & Security several times to follow-up with the incident; however, she has yet to hear back from them. Sodini said his office will be in contact with Grote, but CPD is the lead agency on the Sept. 8 case.

Grote, as well as José and Pasqua, pushed for I.D. checks across all campus buildings to prevent future incidents.

“It wouldn’t have happened if we had an I.D. check-in,” Pasqua said. “I didn’t think I’d have to worry about my safety or my possessions in school, especially on the ninth floor.”

Sodini, who described the incidents as “unusual,” said his office will add an I.D. checkpoint at 623 S. Wabash Ave. during J-session. Current buildings with I.D. checkpoints include the Theater/Film Annex, 1415 S. Wabash Ave.; the Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.; the Media Production Center, 1632 S. State St.; 11th Street Campus, 72 E. 11th St. and the Library in the South Campus Building, 624 S. Michigan Ave.

Sodini explained that the challenges of expanding checkpoints across campus include securing buildings that have inconvenient design and architecture features, including those with multiple entrances or that experience a surge of students coming in at once.

He added that his office is adding the first outside emergency tower, scheduled to function in about two weeks in the northeast corner of Wabash Ave. and 11th St. near the college’s Sculpture Garden.

Sodini said students should take precautions such as being aware of their surroundings when using electronics, activating tracking softwares like “Find My iPhone” or “Find My Macbook” on their electronics, knowing their serial numbers and saving the on-campus emergency number to their phones.

“It’s our [office’s] job,” Sodini said. “But, everybody has a responsibility in [campus safety], and that is making sure that anybody who sees something says something if they think it’s out of place.”