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Tool Leads To Downfall Of Computer Thieves

February 22, 1996

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A thief who stole $19,000 worth of computer chips for resale in a growing black market apparently failed to cover his tracks, leaving a screwdriver that led investigators to his former employer.

Officials at Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday that three men _ a freshman, sophomore and junior at the private school _ are suspects in the chip theft last weekend as well as the taking of $96,000 worth of chips, disk drives, keyboards and other equipment last fall.

Police said it is easy to sell stolen chips, either by advertising them on the Internet or hawking them at computer fairs. A owner easily can install a replacement or supplemental chip to boost a computer’s memory or speed.

James LaPaglia, the campus police chief, said officers planned to charge the students with burglary, theft, receiving stolen property and conspiracy on Thursday.

He said officials were more concerned with recovering the equipment than filing charges. It had not been determined who would be charged with what.

The students, who live in Carnegie Mellon dormitories, could also be expelled by a disciplinary board of teachers and other students, said Michael Murphy, dean of student affairs.

One student hid beneath a trapdoor Friday night, then emerged into a locked classroom and pried open 64 computers, removing 47 chips with a $20 tool available at most computer stores, the police chief said.

The man darted out the door past a startled cleaning crew early Saturday but dropped a screwdriver with the telephone number of an out-of-state security company. The student worked for the company last summer.

The student also helped investigators by sending police a letter signed by ``The Mystery Thief″ and detailing the crime, LaPaglia said. The man tried to lead police astray by suggesting that he lived off campus, but police matched handwriting on the letter to the suspect’s writing.

``He basically said, `Here’s how I did it,‴ LaPaglia said. He would not release the letter, saying it could help other thieves.

Carnegie Mellon surveyed other colleges after 13 recent thefts of computer equipment and found that 17 other schools reported a total of 81 cases.

Officials at the university, which has about 11,000 computers, are considering installing locks on more of its computers and motion detectors in some classrooms. The trapdoor also has been locked.

``Unfortunately, we’re becoming a lot better at solving these crimes,″ LaPaglia said.

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