OGDEN — When Kia McGinnis caught a man stealing items from her friend’s car parked near Ogden’s hot pots earlier this month, she instinctively began snapping photos as the burglar fled on foot and waded into the Ogden River.
Photos shot by victims such as McGinnis and video surveillance images from banks, like those resulting in last week’s arrest of the elusive Bucket List Bandit, are becoming more commonplace and crucial in helping police catch criminals.
“We solve a lot of crimes with surveillance video,” said Ogden Police Lt. Tony Fox. “The trick is to take that video and get it in front of individuals who recognize the suspect.”
However, crime victims may be putting themselves in danger if they attempt to photograph perpetrators, said Weber County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ryon Hadley.
“The best thing to do is to observe and get a description,” he said.
“We don’t want people chasing people, trying to get close to photograph them. You never know their (criminal suspects’) state of mind. They can turn on you.”
McGinnis, a writer for SLUG magazine in Salt Lake City, said in an email to the Standard-Examiner that when she observed her friend’s car being burglarized on the morning of Sept. 11, she wasn’t fearful and her journalism training just took over.
“I am a journalist both in my personal and professional life, which perhaps influenced my decision to take photos,” she said.
“I believe that news is often written for an agenda and watered down from the truth at best, so I always make it a point to document things as honestly as possible.
“A camera is a fantastic tool, and I think that anyone who had been in my situation would have likely been compelled to do the same thing. This event has definitely validated my desire to always have a camera around my neck.”
McGinnis and her best friend, who was visiting from England, went to the hot pots to soak in Utah’s outdoor splendor.
However, the outing began to go awry when they encountered a man wandering near them.
“I had my nice digital camera out and was taking some photos,” McGinnis said.
“He asked if we wanted him to take a photo of us together. We declined and stayed about 10 minutes longer before deciding to leave. As we approached ... (McGinnis’ friend’s) Pontiac Grand Am, we saw said man halfway in the passenger side of the car.”
McGinnis and her friend ran to the car and saw that the passenger window had been smashed in with a rock.
Items stolen from the vehicle included wallets, cellphones, a purse and a passport and visa belonging to McGinnis’ friend.
“I felt stunned, violated and a bit sick to my stomach, but I also felt we had a good shot of catching him,” McGinnis said in the email.
Just then, a couple visiting from Australia stopped their car and pointed out that the burglar had crossed the road and was wading through the Ogden River with the stolen items.
McGinnis then began taking pictures while her friend talked by phone with emergency dispatchers.
“I instinctively turned on my camera and snapped as many shots of the man as I could,” McGinnis said.
“I always, always have a camera and thought it could be potentially helpful to our case.”
The burglar continued to wade west through the river while McGinnis’ friend yelled at him, begging for her passport back.
“At some point, he became scared and threw my bag back up at me,” McGinnis said.
“It contained everything that was stolen except our cellphones. Turns out he left those behind as well, on a pipe near the mouth of the hot pots. However, they were both waterlogged and beyond repair.”
The last time McGinnis saw the burglar, he was neck deep in the river but continued to cross under a bridge, heading toward the mountain backdrop of the hot pots, where a Weber County sheriff’s deputy was waiting for him.
Authorities identified the man as Pete Gregory Garcia, 46. He has been charged with vehicle burglary, theft and criminal mischief.
Hadley, who investigated the incident for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, said the photographic evidence from McGinnis is beneficial, but he wouldn’t advise others to take pictures of criminal suspects.
“I would discourage people from putting themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “I would just as soon that they not be harmed and do without the evidence.”
On a larger scale, bank surveillance photos placed on electronic billboards nationwide resulted in a tip to the FBI that led to last week’s arrest of elusive Pensacola, Fla., resident Michael Eugene Brewster, aka the Bucket List Bandit.
“The surveillance photo of Bucket List Bandit is fairly clear,” said Rebecca Wu, a spokeswoman for the FBI in St. Louis, where a electronic billboard was erected.
“Anybody who knows him would be able to recognize and identify him from the photos. It was a matter of getting his picture out in front of as many people as possible.”
The Bucket List Bandit was nicknamed first by the Standard-Examiner because on July 6 he passed a threatening note to a teller at a Wells Fargo Bank at 5603 S. 1900 West in Roy claiming he only had four months to live. He’s suspected of robbing 10 banks across the country.
Brewster was identified by the FBI as the bandit and arrested Sept. 12 following a traffic stop in Roland, Okla.
At least 49 fugitives have been apprehended as a direct result of tips received from people seeing the FBI’s electronic billboards since the agency started using them in October 2007.
Many more cases have been solved as a result of overall publicity efforts in which billboards played an important role, Wu said.
Currently, the FBI has access to 3,200 electronic billboard locations in 42 states.