When Eliza Webb found a stranger’s cellphone inside her ransacked car last month, it didn’t take a lot of sleuthing to determine two things: one, the cellphone probably belonged to the person who’d prowled her car; and two, the culprit was likely a teen.
Webb, who works with high-school students and is married to a man who has paid dearly for a youthful indiscretion, paused before summoning police.
“I think bringing the police and courts into something like this can have long-term, devastating consequences for kids,” said Webb, 29, of West Seattle.
“I wanted to meet him, talk to his parents and see if there might be another way. I felt that if I could get him to own up to what he’d done and understand there were consequences, it could be a much better outcome.”
What Webb ended up doing — taking the 19-year-old and a cohort door-to-door through her neighborhood to apologize and return items they’d stolen from 13 unlocked cars — ended up making a lasting impression not only on the boys and their families, but also on many of her neighbors.
The teen who left his phone in the car, and his mother — both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity so that the incident would not follow him — said they were grateful for the experience.
“At first I thought she should press charges,” said the teen’s mother. “I thought it would be the only way he would learn that there are consequences for criminal activity. But after I talked to Eliza and her husband, I saw how disastrous that could be.”
The teen said, “I was astonished at how bad my judgment is when I’ve been drinking and I don’t want to risk my freedom over something stupid.”
When Webb found her car ransacked the morning of June 14, her initial thought was that her husband had been looking for something in the dark. But she soon found the unfamiliar cellphone on the seat and discovered that her gym bag had been rifled and her running shoes and sunglasses were missing.
She opened the phone and began going through text messages and phone contacts. She pushed the contact listed as “Mom” and reached the prowler’s mother.
“She was wonderful,” Webb said. “She said she would support whatever decision I made, and she invited me to go to her house and talk to her son.”
When Webb and her husband got to the house, about five blocks from their own, she found the 19-year-old and his twin sister crying.
The teen quickly owned up to what he had done, said his actions had been fueled by alcohol and boredom, and apologized.
The teen also admitted that he and his friend had prowled about 12 additional cars that night, Webb said.
“That stopped me,” said Webb. “I originally went there to talk to him and get my things back, but now we were talking about other victims.”
But Webb said her understanding was that there had been no damage to any of the vehicles because they had all been unlocked, like her car. She asked the teen if he would be willing to return the stolen items to the owners and try to make things right.
The teen agreed, but said the stolen items were in the trunk of a friend’s car.
“I didn’t really want to rat him out,” the teen explained Wednesday, “but all the stuff was in his car.”
Webb said she, her husband and the 19-year-old went to the second teen’s house, where they spoke to a “very disappointed and dismayed” father who rousted his sleeping 18-year-old.
When Webb explained what had happened, the second teen agreed to go along with them. They gathered the pilfered items — cellphones and laptop chargers, sunglasses, a fedora, Webb’s gym shoes — and headed back to Webb’s cul-de-sac.
Another obstacle emerged: The teens couldn’t remember which cars they’d prowled.
So Webb took them door-to-door, visiting every house on the cul-de-sac, so the teens could explain to the residents what they’d done, display the items they’d taken and apologize.
“They seemed very embarrassed and contrite,” said McKee.
Most neighbors thanked Webb and praised the teens for what they were doing. A few scolded and lectured the teens, and others shared stories about the trauma of being the victim of a crime.
“I think it was good for them to hear how something that seems as minor as this can really rob people of their sense of security,” said Webb.
They were not able to find every victim that morning, but Webb said they left word that the stolen items could be retrieved at her house. Since then, only one person has contacted Webb to retrieve belongings, but many have stopped by to talk about what she did.
Webb said her block has an annual summer party and the teens have agreed to write a letter of apology that will be read at this year’s event.
“I’m actually kind of glad it happened,” said the 19-year-old. “It felt terrible to hear that people are worried and feel like they have to lock the door because of what I did. In a funny way, I feel closer to my neighbors and kind of look forward to seeing them around in different circumstances.”
His mother said, “I’m deeply grateful to Eliza for taking the time to become personally involved with my son and giving him the chance to go face-to-face with the people he victimized and make amends.
“Kids need somebody besides their own parents looking at them and holding them accountable. She did a beautiful thing.”