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Shopping with the Enemy

After only a week in South Florida, Minh Nguyen was pretty much ready to pack it all in and move back to Washington, D.C. On September 20 a thief broke into his friend Darryl Strawser's South Beach apartment and stole all of Nguyen's belongings and nearly $5000 worth of camera equipment belonging to Strawser. When the men filed a police report, investigators told them there wasn't much hope of recovering their possessions. Because Strawser had no renter's insurance, it didn't seem likely that he'd be doing any of his trademark risque shoots for South Beach nightclubs in the near future.

The next day, while Nguyen debated the move home and Strawser sank into depression over his sabotaged career, a friend of Nguyen's came by the apartment at Tenth Street and Jefferson Avenue and invited him to spend the day hanging out on South Beach. Why not, thought Nguyen. "He had a friend he wanted to visit, so we went over to this guy's hotel room to see if he wanted to join us," he says. Shortly after noon, they arrived at the residential hotel at Third Street and Ocean Drive, where Nguyen was introduced to his friend's buddy, Chris.

Which was when Nguyen was overcome by a powerful sense of deja vu.
Although he had never met Chris or set foot in this particular hotel, he couldn't shake the sensation that everything seemed familiar. Or, at the very least, that certain items in Chris's room rang a bell.

For one thing, Nguyen noticed a bottle of cologne just like one he'd bought a few years ago. "It was a discontinued brand, and I knew there weren't a lot of bottles of this stuff still around," he explains. And oddly, Chris appeared to share Nguyen's taste in music; a lot of the CDs in the room were the same titles Nguyen owned -- or had owned before they got stolen in the break-in. He even noticed a pair of jeans that looked familiar. Not only that, but Chris appeared to have an interest in photography, just like Nguyen's friend Strawser; one of Chris's drawers was filled with camera equipment. "Then I saw my green backpack," Nguyen says, "and I knew this was my stuff." He also saw a gun, which didn't belong to him or Strawser, but which drew his attention nonetheless.

The 25-year-old Nguyen wasn't quite sure what to do next. He didn't want to confront Chris, especially given the close quarters -- and the gun. "My biggest concern, though, was, how do I get my stuff back?" he says. He concluded that the most prudent thing would be for the three of them to go out together as planned; as long as he was with Chris, Nguyen reasoned, the suspected burglar wouldn't be able to sell off any of the ill-gotten gains.

So Nguyen, his friend (who asked not to be identified in this story), and Chris "went and hung out," as Nguyen puts it. They had lunch at the Palace, at Twelfth Street and Ocean Drive (Chris's treat!). At one point Nguyen was able to excuse himself discreetly and phone Strawser; when his friend didn't pick up the phone, he left a message on the answering machine to fill him in. He briefly considered calling the police, but thought it would be a good idea to consult with Strawser first.

Chris and Nguyen ended up spending the entire afternoon together. They visited several stores, where Nguyen got the impression his quarry was paying for merchandise with stolen credit cards. The tip-offs: none of the cards bore the name "Chris"; and once, while buying computer accessories in a Radio Shack, Chris suddenly left the store when it appeared obvious the salesclerk was on the phone trying to verify information with the credit card company.

At about 6:00 p.m., while Nguyen and Chris were still trouping around South Beach, Strawser arrived home and checked his messages. "I can't believe what I'm hearing," he recalls. "Minh is saying, 'I think I know who the robber is. I'm with him right now. I can't talk long. Call the police, I'm going to try and keep him busy.' And all that time I'm thinking, 'What does he mean, he's with the robber?'"

From the message, Strawser was able to gather that the suspected burglar's name was Chris and that he lived in a hotel at 321 Ocean Drive. Nguyen had also supplied Chris's room number. "I immediately call the police," Strawser says. "They said they couldn't really go barging into the guy's apartment based on a message left on an answering machine." Instead, the operator suggested he go down to the hotel to see if he could discover anything else.

"I'm not really thinking straight, so I drive down there," says Strawser. "The manager tells me Chris is really strange and that he always pays his rent in quarters. I don't know what to do now, so I call the police back and I tell them, 'Okay, I'm down here at the hotel, now what the hell am I supposed to do?'"

Eventually Strawser was transferred to a detective, who looked through the report that had been filed on the burglary the day before. The detective's first instructions to Strawser: Get the hell out of the hotel! If the suspect returned, the cop explained, he might recognize Strawser and flee.

Pausing for a quick stop at the apartment to see if Nguyen had come back (he hadn't), Strawser next went looking for his friend, whereupon he claims he was attacked by a trio of "homophobic rednecks" who taunted him with shouts of "fag" and other epithets and spat on him. "With everything that was going on, you can imagine my tension level," he says agitatedly. "I'm now under major pressure."

When he finally made it home again, it was 8:30 p.m. Nguyen was waiting, and the two amateur sleuths headed for the police station. According to Nguyen, the detectives who interviewed them debated having him return to Chris's hotel wearing a "wire," an idea that was scrapped when the police were informed about the gun. "They thought I might be taken hostage," Nguyen says.

By 10:00 p.m. a new plan had been hatched. As Strawser and Nguyen waited outside, nearly a dozen police officers and detectives surrounded the building and demanded that Chris let them into his room. Following a brief standoff, the suspect relented. While the two friends identified their belongings for investigators, Chris Riveland, a 25-year-old day laborer, was placed under arrest. The cops also came away with a cache of credit cards and opened mail that wasn't addressed to Riveland.

After several hours, during which police photographed the stolen items and completed their paperwork, Strawser and Nguyen took their belongings home. "I'm absolutely amazed," Strawser reflects philosophically. "This was a one-in-a-million chance.


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