Ben Popper, NY Observer / Betabeat writer
Betabeat is back with another edition of modern justice.
Back in March we brought you the story of Mark Bao, the serial entrepreneur who tracked his laptop thief and released humiliating videos of the culprit doing the rubber band dance on Youtube.
Last night a live drama played out on Twitter, as Sean Power, a tech author and consultant, used the free software program, Prey, to track his stolen laptop, which had disappeared, along with a birth certificate, health card, cell phone and cash, from a New York City bar while he was in town on business (consulting for startups Etsy and Hunch.)
Despite checking every bar he'd been at, he couldn't find the laptop bag. They all insisted nobody had seen it, he says.
From back home in Canada, Power remembered he had the software, and two days later says he watched remotely as the "thief" took a photo and uploaded it to Flickr.
That helped Power figure out his name and location: Oficina Latina, on Prince St., in Nolita. It was one of the bars he'd visited.
Twitter followers watching Powers tweet about the drama soon figured out the culprit was actually a part-owner in the establishment.
Power says he tried to sic the NYPD on the owner, who identified himself to the press as Paolo Voltano, but he says they refused to respond without his filing an official report — which he couldn't do from Ontario. Several online watchers offered to help, but Power begged them not to.
"Please please please don't get directly involved. I don't want any of you to get hurt for a stupid laptop."
Reached for comment, Voltano insists the misplacement was a communication error among the bar staff. "When he called we didn't know the bag had a laptop in it," he said. "It wasn't a laptop bag, it was a big bag, like one you have a lot of stuff inside."
"It was a mis-communication. We didn't know we had it, and until someone comes to claim it, we don't know."
He began using the computer for personal purposes, he said, only after the bag had been there "a week and nobody claimed it. I thought it was karma," he said, mentioning his own computer and cell phone had been stolen three weeks before at the restaurant.
In the meantime, a Twitter follower was staking out the bar, and the story had broken on several blogs, although Voltano was still blissfully unaware.
Power continued to share photos of Voltano that he was taking with the laptop camera and posting on the website Imgur.
In an ironic role reversal, Power was able to watch as Voltano as he logged into his Chase bank account on the computer.
By this point the dramatic narrative had jumped the shark for some followers, who began to tweet that Powers was probably part of viral stunt to promote the Prey anti-theft software.
"I write about analytics, I don't shill for product," said Power in an interview with Betabeat.
While friends jumped in to defend his honor, a Twitter user named Nick Reese and a mysterious hero known only as "the girl in the purple sarong" confronted the villian, who gave the laptop up without a fight.
"I hate that it happened there [at Oficina Latina], because it is one of my favorite bars," said Power.
Voltano said he returned everything in the bag to Power as soon as he was confronted, including a large sum of cash that was in the bag.
A freelance writer named Brandon Ballanger captured the entire real time drama through a very creative use of the Storify platform, a tool for quickly creating journalism based on social media streams.
Powers was so happy to have his property back he actually reached out to the various journalistic outlets that covered the episode and asked them to remove any identifying information.
"Paolo freely gave it up. I'm not about to accuse anyone of anything. I'd rather forget that that place exists and just move on."