The male subject who was arrested in this week’s high school backpack thefts is a former Oakland high school student who had been given an earlier warning to stay off the Piedmont campus in mid-August. On August 21, he apparently returned to serve as a decoy, posing as a custodian to divert attention from his accomplices who were poised to steal the backpacks of high school volleyball players who were practicing in Binks Gym.
The diversion was simple but effective: According to a notice sent to high school parents by the school district, one of the athletes said an adult posing as a custodian entered the gym and began sweeping the floor. He asked the girls to move backpacks closer to the back door to allow him to sweep the area. The girls determined later that their backpacks were missing.
Although the bags were later recovered by Oakland police on Grand Avenue, any electronics such as Chrome books or phones that were in the bags were missing. Backpacks were also stolen from Witter Field this week.
PUSD Athletic Director Alphonso Powell played a key role in the subject’s arrest, said Piedmont Police Department Officer Nicole Casalnuovo in an interview on August 23. Powell noticed the presence of the individual on the high school campus around the time of the thefts, and immediately notified Casalnuovo, who had been separately called to investigate reports of a suspicious vehicle that was partially blocking a driveway on Jerome and El Cerrito. After doing a walkthrough of the campus and meeting with PHS Principal Adam Littlefield and Powell, Officer Casalnuovo found the subject returning toward the misparked vehicle and was able to detain him for trespassing on school grounds. The PUSD notice also says that “a parent of a volleyball player identified a time and location of three men leaving their vehicle on Magnolia Avenue. District surveillance cameras showed three men walking near Binks Gymnasium.”
According to Officer Casalnuovo, after interviewing the subject, identified as Marcus Elliott Penn, 19, it was determined that he knew some of the people involved in the thefts. “Through our detective work with surveillance cameras and witness statements, we were able to successfully charge him with the district attorney’s office with conspiracy with regard to the theft, and misdemeanor trespassing. I really applaud Mr. Powell for being so aware and helping us out. He’s been instrumental. He just happened to look over and see him and he knew exactly who it was.” This remains an ongoing investigation.
“I know people are constantly using the track or running around the campus after school hours, so it’s hard to know who’s who and what’s what, but it’s imperative that people are aware of their surroundings and paying attention to who’s there,” said Officer Casalnuovo. PUSD employees wear Staff Identifcation badges, typically on lanyards, for identification and safety reasons. “We’re currently working with [Facilities Director] Pete Palmer and the other school administrators on devising a plan to better secure the campus.”