URBANA — A University of Illinois Police Department cold case of sorts came back to life Wednesday in a building on campus, much to the delight of an Urbana woman victimized by crime 12 years ago.
Mike Porter, a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 149 who works at the UI refrigeration shop, was about to drain the Freon from a freezer when he made a discovery that heated him up.
"On Wednesday, I took the back cover off this minus-80 freezer. It's a very heavy thing. The compressors are all down low. We had it up on a fork lift about eye level. There's two compressors and a jungle gym of piping that you have to trace down. I noticed a big wad that looked like rolled-up paper towels," said Porter, 56, of Sidney, who has worked on refrigeration equipment at the UI for 25 years.
"I see this wad of paper towels, and it's kind of oil-soaked. I'm curious what's inside. At first, I picked it up and just about threw it in the trash.
"I figured it was an old capacitor that was blown up or an oily valve that they wrapped up and forgot to throw away at the end of the service call," he said.
His curiosity getting the better of him; Porter looked again.
"I started unrolling this thing, and her face appears, and that's as far as I went. It had the lady's face on the outside of the wallet. I didn't go any farther. I rolled it back up and set it back where it was. Then I called my boss, and I told him, 'We got to get UIPD out here. We got a cold case,'" said Porter, cracking himself up.
"I gotta have some fun with it. I've been kidding the guys there might be other cases they want me to look into. One of the guys said they could get me a badge that says Barney Fife on it," he said.
What Porter found purposefully tucked in the back of the freezer was a wallet that Barbara Meyer had reported stolen sometime in 2001 from her first-floor office in Burrill Hall at 407 S. Goodwin Ave., U, where she was a coordinator in charge of computer labs and computer training for the School of Life Sciences. Porter and co-workers had picked up the freezer from Burrill about a week before his find.
Twelve years later, the 67-year-old retiree can recall pretty clearly what happened that day.
"I had been in one of the labs to check on a computer, and I saw a young woman leaving my office. I asked her what she needed because I didn't recognize her. She said she was looking for someone. This is a very common trick on campus — people who dress like students and pretend to be looking for someone.
"She left very hurriedly, and I immediately realized something was wrong. I pulled open the file drawer where I kept my purse. The purse was there and the wallet was gone," Meyer said.
She immediately called police with a description, and within an hour, the thief was in custody.
"They knew who she was through my description. I actually picked her out of a photo lineup," Meyer said.
Meyer suspected the woman was "skilled," given how secluded her office was and the trouble the thief had to go to in order to get to her purse.
"What I am guessing happened is, that when she left, she probably ran upstairs into Burrill Hall. There are always a number of freezers in any lab building in the hallways. I'm sure she went into the ladies room, grabbed the money, threw the wallet in a freezer and probably exited out the west end of the building. That's my Sherlockian theory," she said, laughing.
"I didn't get my wallet back. She was supposed to repay me the money but didn't," said Meyer, unable to recall the woman's name.
On Wednesday, UI police Officer A.J. Martin paid a call on Meyer.
"I find a UI policeman at my door. He was smiling, which was good," said Meyer, who said she was briefly puzzled as to why a UI police officer would be at the door of the Urbana home she has lived in since 1971.
"He had a paper bag. He asked me if I had reported something stolen from my office. I said, 'Yes, my wallet.' And he said. 'I think we have it.'"
Opening the blue double-fold leather wallet was a trip down memory lane. It appeared to have everything in it except about $80 in cash.
There was a debit card from Busey Bank that expired in 2001, credit cards that expired in 2002, two "very old" business cards, a Sam's Club card, two Allstate road assistance cards and "several little scraps of paper with phone numbers on them that I have no idea about. Did I miss appointments?"
"I had forgotten I was a member of the Chicago Motor Club," she said, wondering why she felt the need for so much roadside assistance.
There were three punch cards for Espresso Royale, the coffee shop she frequented in the Illini Union prior to her 2005 retirement. "I wonder if they'll still honor those? I would always forget my card, and they would give me a new one."
"It had a prepaid Ameritech phone card. Who uses those anymore? I have my old driver's license. It expired in 1999. It would have been issued in 1996. It's the best picture ever taken of me, and I'm so glad to have it back."
"It had my I-card," she said of the UI identification card that had her Social Security number on it, issued when identity theft was unheard of.
"Here's the really big thing. I found a $100 gift card to Barnes and Noble my brother had given me the previous Christmas. I thought that was lost forever, but it's still here. Thank God it wasn't for Borders," she said of the now out-of-business bookstore chain. "I'm hoping Barnes and Noble will still honor this."
Meyer also still vividly recalls the hassle it was to have to cancel also those credit cards and get new identification.
"It's a pain. I had this happen to me once before in Morrill Hall back in the '80s. It was the same situation except they found the wallet (minus the cash) in days," she said, but not before she had canceled credit cards and started the replacement process.
In the wake of his discovery, Porter's having a ball taking on the persona of Barney Fife and a cold-case investigator, especially since he "came within an eyelash of just tossing it."
His past refrigeration discoveries have included beer that students left behind or "nasty chemicals that departments are supposed to clean out but don't." The wallet was a first for him.
"This was a cold case. Now it's a closed case," he snickered.
As for Meyer, she's thrilled that Porter's curiosity was piqued.
"I am so grateful to him. I am very excited to get it back. For one thing, he got me my gift certificates back and my favorite driver's license photo. It's kind of like a little time capsule."