Booking it: Public Safety helps catch tri-state textbook thieves

By: Benjamin Rieke

Teamwork, research and a cell phone took down a textbook theft ring spanning multiple states and costing thousands of dollars.

Ryan S. Lewis and Genesis G. Abellar, both 33, are facing felony burglary and theft charges following their arrest in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 18. The two are responsible for a series of textbook thefts in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. The first reported thefts were at MSUM’s Center for Business and NDSU. Mitchel Osland, Campus Security Officer for MSUM, reviewed the original reports.

“Originally there were ten professors I took reports from,” Osland said. “It was maybe up to $3,000 worth just in our books, and I think ours is one of the smaller ones, in volume, that was taken.”

The thieves targeted instructor copies which are more expensive because they have additional information not found in normal textbooks. On top of that, investigators are not sure how the thieves were able to enter the locked offices in the Center for Business.

“One of the things that we couldn’t figure out was that, even in Wisconsin, none of these schools had forced entry,” Director of Public Safety James Schumann said. “It’s still a mystery how they did it.”

Osland was similarly surprised by the pair’s methods.

“You maybe will have a book bag stolen on campus that someone leaves unattended, but even that’s not been very often at all,” Osland said. “Something like this was just totally out of the ordinary.”

Two suspects were caught on MSUM’s security cameras, but neither of them could be identified at the time. Schumann contacted law enforcement at other colleges and warned them to be on the lookout for the two men. A few days later, both the University of Wisconsin River Falls and University of Wisconsin Stout reported textbooks missing.

The men were caught on camera again at University of Wisconsin Green Bay on June 10. The two stole more than 60 textbooks worth over $12,000. This time one of the suspects, later identified as Abellar, was seen making a call on a cellphone. According to Schumann, that detail was vital to the investigation, since police could track the IP address.

Police from UW Green Bay quickly began pooling resources to lock down the location of the thieves. Tomas Kujawa, Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at UW Green Bay, said the process took extensive research.

“We used the school’s internal internet, cell tower dumps and looked through thousands of IP addresses,” Kujawa said. “We assumed they weren’t from the area, and that helped to narrow things down.”

A detective from UW Green Bay contacted Osland, and both schools shared what they knew about the suspects. After that, a pattern emerged. Authorities found a phone connected to the internet at the Super 8 motel in Moorhead the day before the burglary at NDSU. The same phone was used at UW River Falls and later UW Stout. That phone and its IP address were soon traced back to Houston. That information was very helpful in locating the thieves.

“They used their own phones; they didn’t use throw-away phones. It showed their travel,” Schumann said.

Lewis and Abellar were taken into custody by Harris County deputies without incident. The deputies said they found Lewis in his apartment surrounded by thousands of textbooks. The pair were using Amazon and Craigslist to resell the books online.

“Online gave everyone a whole new avenue to sell stolen books,” Schumann said. He explained that while textbook theft has gone on for years, the anonymity provided by the internet makes it easier. He added that most people wouldn’t know if they bought a stolen book.

Both Lewis and Abellar were released from Harris County Jail on cash bond when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston. Chief Kujawa said Lewis later turned himself in to Wisconsin police and is currently in custody in Brown County. If sentenced in Minnesota, the pair could face up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

There is no word on if the books stolen from the Center for Business were found in Lewis’s apartment. Investigators are continuing to map out Lewis and Abellar’s travels over the past year in hopes of connecting them to other unsolved textbook thefts.

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