Sudbury, Ont., man says he knows where his stolen laptop is, but police won't retrieve it

Bill McElree of Sudbury, Ont., noticed his laptop was missing last week and said a tracking app pointed him to a neighbour's house. Despite reporting it to the Greater Sudbury Police Service, they wouldn't obtain a search warrant, but the service said it's reviewing a complaint. (Submitted by Bill McElree - image credit)
Bill McElree of Sudbury, Ont., noticed his laptop was missing last week and said a tracking app pointed him to a neighbour's house. Despite reporting it to the Greater Sudbury Police Service, they wouldn't obtain a search warrant, but the service said it's reviewing a complaint. (Submitted by Bill McElree - image credit)

A Sudbury, Ont., man says local police wouldn't obtain a search warrant to retrieve his missing laptop, even after he gave them evidence pointing to its exact whereabouts.

Bill McElree was quickly able determine the location of his laptop, which was missing last week, by using Apple's Find My feature, which indicated the laptop was at his neighbour's home.

The tracking app, which can be used on an iPhone, enables users to see the location of their devices on a map and play a sound to find them when they're online.

"And I went, 'OK, maybe they found it or something.' So I walked over there and it told me I was like 10 metres, five metres away. And walked right up to it where it said like a metre, and it had to be on the other side of a wall," McElree said.

He said he called police, who told him to submit a report online. He then knocked on his neighbour's door and asked for the laptop back. But McElree added that the neighbour denied having the computer and called police.

McElree said he was glad when police showed up, so he could show them the alerts that indicated the location of his laptop.

"However, when I showed them the screen shots … they didn't seem to understand it."

Bill McElree/Facebook
Bill McElree/Facebook

He said police returned to their cruiser, and when he spoke with them again, they told him they were researching Find My to learn how the app works. However, McElree said, they informed him they had spoken with their supervisor, who said they likely wouldn't be able to get a warrant to search the neighbour's home.

McElree said he was confused and frustrated.

"That's what Find My is for. It is literally designed for what happened," he said.

"It's just bizarre, it's surreal. The only thing I didn't hand the police was a picture of him holding it [the laptop] when he answered the door — which he didn't do — but that would have been the next level of evidence. I don't know what else I could have given them."

He said police did take his computer serial number to open a case file.

As for the neighbour, he doesn't want to be named. However he has told CBC Sudbury he did not take the laptop, and believes the app is malfunctioning, and noted he has read comments online about cases of that happening with the Find My app.

'Well-established apps' shouldn't pose issue: lawyer

The Greater Sudbury Police Service declined CBC's request for an interview, but a spokesperson said the police service did receive a complaint and the issue is being reviewed.

Lawyer Gerald Chan, who has expertise on search warrants and digital evidence, said he was "a bit confused as to why the police don't think they can get a search warrant in these circumstances," though he noted he doesn't have the background information in this case.

Supplied by Gerald Chan
Supplied by Gerald Chan

Chan, a partner at Stockwoods LLP in Toronto, said in order to get a warrant, police need to have "reasonable grounds" to believe a crime was committed and there is evidence of it in a particular place. He noted that does not mean proving it beyond a reasonable doubt.

He said the main reasons he could imagine for not being able to get a warrant in a case like this one is if there is reason to distrust the complainant or the app.

"They're pretty well-established apps on pretty well-established devices. So assuming it's ... one that we all use in our day-to-day lives, I don't see what the reliability concern would be," Chan said.

App shows laptop booted up again at same location

Several days following the initial confrontation with his neighbour, McElree said he received another notification, saying his laptop had been powered on again and was still in the same location.

The conflict with his neighbour escalated, he said, and he believes his chances of getting his laptop back are "diminishing rather quickly."

I think we're losing touch with our sense of community. — Bill McElree

His computer is a fairly new MacBook Pro, which he said would cost about $3,000 to replace. He uses it for his work as a wedding planner, officiant and disc jockey.

"The last two years have been a disaster. So you know from a budget standpoint, it's certainly an unexpected expense, and it is going to be hard to replace," McElree said.

But he's also facing the loss of the sense of community he previously felt in his neighbourhood.

"Obviously it's extremely awkward and we'll probably never be friends. But this is not my Sudbury," McElree said.

"More and more I think we're losing touch with our sense of community. Sudburians used to look after Sudburians, and we looked after our neighbours."