Mobile Wi-Fi: How a wireless router helped catch a thief

When a crook stole a transit-authority maintenance vehicle, the IT team hit the road and tracked it to a local chop shop.

car chase
Shutterstock / Pavel Chagochkin

As an IT pro, it’s not often that I get to tail a suspect, track down a stolen vehicle and provide digital evidence of the thief’s getaway. But that was all part of a day’s work as some colleagues and I kept tabs on the hijacked maintenance truck and ultimately recovered it with the help of a GPS-enabled mobile router.

It happened last summer, and I was on the job the IT department of the transit authority I work for when word came in that one of our maintenance vehicles was stolen.

The worker on the truck left it running when he stepped out of the vehicle to check what needed to be done at a city bus stop, and an opportunistic thief drove off with it—a six-figure heist given the value of the truck plus the maintenance gear it carried.

The worker called it in to our dispatchers, who got on the phone with police dispatchers, who notified patrol units in hopes of getting eyes on the truck. 

Meanwhile, what our dispatcher and the thief didn’t know is that the truck was equipped with a Cradlepoint mobile router that features GPS. So I was immediately able to pull up its location using the Cradlepoint NetCloud app on my cell phone, and I began giving live updates every few minutes to our dispatcher, who relayed the information to the police.

Then the truck stopped moving. The app showed that it was sitting at a Sonic, where, it turned out, our crook stopped for a Slush. The truck didn’t move for about 15 minutes, and still the police hadn’t arrived. Since the location was about eight minutes from where we were, a colleague and I decided to take to the streets along with two maintenance workers in a separate vehicle in hopes of hopping back into the truck while it was unattended and driving off with it.

The truck with the driver behind the wheel was still there when we arrived, but as we approached, he pulled out of the parking lot and began driving erratically. We followed and tried to keep him in sight, and when we did lose him, I was able to get us back on his tail using the NetCloud app.

Initially, the thief didn’t seem to notice he was being followed because we were in a civilian car and kept our distance, but when he tried to drop the vehicle off at a garage tucked away in an alley, it was hard for us to keep out of sight. He noticed us, got back in the truck, and took off, driving more erratically than before.

While in pursuit, my colleague drove, and I continued to monitor the location of the vehicle on my cell phone and update our transit dispatchers via radio.

After 30 minutes of driving around town, on and off the highway, and in and out of parking lots (while still being respectful of the speed limit), we lost him on a stretch of road next to a hilly field with sparse vegetation and a few oil rigs. The NetCloud app confirmed that the truck was somewhere in that parcel, but we couldn’t see it, and it wasn’t clear how to drive in.

We decided to circle the area, keeping an eye out for the truck and looking for an entrance to the field. I continued updating the police via our improvised line of communication—me radioing information to our dispatcher, who was on the phone with the police dispatcher, who was on the radio to squad cars—something like the game of telephone. Whether it was that makeshift connection or something else, the police still hadn’t shown up. But our colleagues from the maintenance team found a dirt road concealed from view by trees that led into the field. They drove in hoping to find the truck.

A few minutes later they radioed that they’d found it along with 20 to 30 chopped-up vehicles and a few trailer homes in the middle of a clearing that wasn’t visible from the road because it was hidden by hills and tall bushes.

Our stolen vehicle was undamaged and had the unfinished Sonic Slush, still cold, in the cupholder.

The thief had fled on foot, but about a week later, police caught up with him and arrested him as he was getting on a bus. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but the transit authority provided police with video of the suspect and parts of the chase that were recorded by surveillance cameras mounted on our buses and trucks around the city.

The chase was exhilarating, albeit foolhardy, and made possible through an unexpected use of the Cradlepoint router’s GPS.

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