The Artful Dodger

It’s funny how a single experience can taint one’s overall impression of a place. Having my phone pick-pocketed at Chula Vista’s Costco on Monday cast a negative shadow over this American border town. The officers of the Chula Vista Yacht Club have been one of the most welcoming of any club, with Commodore Ron and Dockmaster Jim coming down to greet us as we arrived at their spacious guest dock. They even arranged a fourth day for us. Chula Vista Marina is at the most southern end of San Diego Bay, just seven miles from the US-Mexico border. Coming in to the marina at low tide in the late afternoon was tenuous. Kandu’s depth sounder or transponder read 6.5’. She draws 6’. I couldn’t recall whether I set the sounder to display feet from surface or feet before grounding Kandu’s keel, a setting I’ll have to check this morning (no, duh). Chula Vista Yacht Club started in 1883, five years before the San Diego YC. But being at the harbors bottom and at the mouth of several washes, after a few flood rains, the basin silted up, and the club dissolved until 1988, around the time the harbor was dredged and the marina built. This is the first marina we’ve visited where a security guard patrols the docks. Still, we feel safe here, aboard our quiet home afloat, . . . that is, until the next day.

With their one-year visa, French Polynesia requires two passport photos per person upon arrival in French Polynesia. Our yacht agent at Tahiti Crew will be representing us, so we wanted to send her the photos to bring to the Papeete immigration office on our behalf. Costco is close to the Chula Vista Marina, so we drive over there to get our pictures taken.

It is quick. The photo clerk says it will be 30 minutes before they were ready: 3:50 p.m. We separate, Leslie and Trent go to the food court to get a ‘Chicken Bake’ for Trent, and I leave with Bryce so he can taste the various samples throughout the store. After half a dozen samples, we leave the warehouse interior to join Leslie and Trent outside, in line at the food court. I decide to get a ‘Latte Freeze.’ I don’t drink a lot of coffee, so when I do, I catch a significant energy high. After picking up our “food, glorious food,” I stay with Trent so he can eat seated. Leslie and Bryce walk over to neighboring Walmart to check out the $5 DVD movies bin. Since arriving to take our photos, I calculate that I’ve been at Costco for a total of about 30-35 minutes before Trent and I leave Costco and walk across the parking lot to join Leslie and Bryce and look for movies.

After ten minutes of sorting through movies, I realize that my phone is missing from my right, back pocket, which I recall having zipped shut. Bryce and Trent swear they don’t have it. A terrible feeling comes over me. Having recently reset the phone, the screen isn’t locked, providing complete access to my email and contact list. I fight off a sickening feeling, preferring instead to “review the situation.” First, I rush to our car to make sure I’m not having a “senior moment” (I now qualify for senior coffee at McDonald’s . . . ). Affirming it isn’t in the car, I rush back to Leslie and from her phone, call mine. Maybe someone found it and dropped it off with the store?   Maybe someone was waiting for me to call it so they could return it to me? From Leslie’s phone I dial my phone. It rings. Someone picks up, but remains silent. I plea, “You have my phone. This is my phone. I need my phone . . . .” And they hang up. Now I know it is a theft.

So I call T-Mobile and shut down the iPhone’s calling service and lock its serial number so it can’t be enrolled in another plan.   Talking with the T-Mobile technician about securing or erasing the media on the phone, he asks if I engaged the “Find My Phone” feature and whether I knew my Apple ID and password. That’s when I get an incoming call. Guessing it might be the person with my phone, I ask the tech to hold while I take the call.

“Did you call about your phone?” says a young man’s voice with a slight Spanish accent.

“Yes, do you have it?”

“No, but I’m with a man who doesn’t speak English who found it at Costco. He wants to return it to you.”

I’m hopeful that is was a dumb error and that I had actually left the phone somewhere and this good Samaritan was going to return it to me. “Great. I’m near Costco. I can meet you right now.”

“He’s not at Costco. He’s at the last trolley stop before Mexico.”

The sick feeling comes back. “How can I get it?”

“How fast can you get here? He’s on his way back to Mexico and wants to go now. Can you be here in 5 minutes?”

“I’m not from here, I’m at Costco, you tell me how long it will take and give me directions. I’ll leave now.”

“Is there a reward for the phone?”

“Yes. Okay. How much is the reward? What’s he want?”


“Done. I’ll pay it. Where do I go?”

“Meet us at the trolley station next to Sunset Elementary. He’s wearing a red zip-up sweatshirt with a light-blue T-Shirt. What’s your car look like?”

“A red Prius. I’m leaving now.”

“See you.”

I tell the T-Mobile tech what I’m doing and to stand-by. He says he’ll call me back every 10-15 minutes to check up on me.

Man, I’ve got to pee, but do I have time? I shouldn’t have had that coffee. I’m buzzed. I take the time, then find Leslie and tell her what’s going on as she’s still shopping. I take Bryce and Trent because I think Latino’s like kids and are less likely to have any funny business in front of them.

Every stoplight is taking forever. Trolley trains are dropping arms in front of me. I’m nervous that this may be the very train the guy wants to take home. T-Mobile calls back. “Not now, Aaron, you knocked out my map!” I miss my turn and another trolley comes and drops the arms in front of me. I’m panicked. I’m taking too long. I shouldn’t have pee’d. The arms come up, I turn right, and tear down the street to the elementary school less than a quarter mile away. I pull up to the school and get out. A police officer, lights flashing, comes out of his truck behind me. “Identification and registration, right now!!! I’m pulling you over for speeding down Berry.” “I’m sorry. You’re probably right.” I get the documents he wants and tell him that this is a very bad day. “Some guy stole my phone at Costco and is going to sell it back to me somewhere around here, and now I’m getting a ticket.”

“We’ll get your phone back. And you won’t have to pay for it. Call your kids back.” I had Bryce and Trent looking for the guy, in case he was at the school. I’m concerned that he saw the police and took off with my phone. I am so frustrated.

“Here’s your citation. You can hire a $99 lawyer who can probably make it go away. Now let’s go get your phone.”

$250 Chula Vista souvenir
$250 Chula Vista souvenir

I park my car in a safer spot while the police officer writes up another ticket to a car parked near the school. Walking the three short blocks to the trolley station, I see a dark complexion Latino man in a red sweatshirt zipped down to show his light blue T-shirt. He’s leaning against the cement wall that leads to the trolley platform. A young man with curly dark brown hair leans adjacent to him, presumably the guy who spoke with me. They’re smiling as if one said something funny to the other. As I approach, Bryce and Trent catch up behind me. The two men are quiet. The young guy asks, “Come to get your phone?”


The man in the red sweatshirt pulls out from his right pocket my phone.  “Is this your phone?” asks the young guy.

“Yes.” And the red sweat-shirt guy hands it to me to check.

Whoop-whoop pops the siren, “You’re under arrest!” The traffic officer walks swiftly our way with has his hand over his handgun. “Show me some identification right now. Do you know it’s a felony to sell a . . . .”

I can’t hear him. My eyes are too focused. I see the left hand of the red sweat-shirted man pulling out a very stuffed leather wallet. His hand is gimp around the thumb. He couldn’t have pick-pocketed me, but he looks like a really bad guy. He moves very slowly and deliberately. I’m guessing he has people working for him, bringing them their catch, like the ‘Bill Sikes’ character from “Oliver.” I seem to recognize the young guy from Costco, looking at clothes, looking at me as I passed by him earlier that day. The young man is pleading his case, but I can’t hear him. I’m focused on what I see. The officer looks sternly at me and tells me to leave; reminding me that he has my information. “Get out of here, . . . go.” So we do . . . quickly, back to the car, with my phone and my ticket. The boys say they saw that the red sweat-shirted man had several phones in his pocket.

In the car, as I am driving away, my phone rings. It’s Aaron, the tech from T-Mobile. I update him. He says that this doesn’t happen everyday, and reactivates my phone. He said iPhones are hard to steal because providers can shut them down and track them anywhere in the world where there’s Internet. He thinks the thief realized I was actively pursuing my phone and thought it better to make money on the reward. Had I locked my phone’s screen, he wouldn’t have been able to locate the number from which I had called him.  As we drive back to Costco where Leslie is waiting for us, Bryce puts the screen lock on my phone.

I feel uneasy, having been so close to corrupt forces. I think of all the heartache, sadness, and frustration these men cause and hope my odd series of misfortune takes them off the street for at least a little bit. Walking to our boat, I feel the need to lock her and all of our stuff up, the first time since owning her. Driving through Chula Vista, I’m not comfortable anymore. I’m on edge. The manager of the Costco said that in the two years that he’s been there, he’d never heard of such an incident, so he’s not prepared to change anything just yet. I’m most grateful for getting my phone back, not having to change all my passwords again or worry about everyone getting stupid emails from my email accounts. With the song “Pick a Pocket or Two” playing in my head, I think how sad it is that one incident can have such an effect on one’s perception of a whole city. But I’m optimistic by nature and know soon I will again feel that, all in all, “It’s a Fine Life.”

Things were looking up, passing under the Coronado Bridge on our way to Chula Vista Marina
Things were looking up, passing under the Coronado Bridge on our way to Chula Vista Marina

Eric Rigney

9 thoughts on “The Artful Dodger”

  1. What a day!! So glad that it ended well with the help of the police. I’ve ridden my bike around the San Diego Bay several times and we go right through the Chula Vista Yacht Club. This will be the last time that I know exactly where you are.

  2. . . . and so begins the real “seedy side of life” education for Bryce and Trent. Ugh. At least it ended well.

    1. Thanks, but I don’t think I handled it well. Fortunately circumstances worked out as they did, except the $240 ticket.

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