Laptop thief may go to prison for life

A man who met a woman through an online dating service, stole her laptop, and was convicted of burglary is facing 31 years to life.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
Online dating may be mainstream by now, but a recent California court decision contains yet another cautionary tale for anyone inclined to be overly trusting of Internet matchups.

The lesson for daters: If your inaugural encounter with an online paramour begins with a request for money and accolades for your laptop, move on. The lesson for thieves: If you steal your Net paramour's laptop, under California's three-strikes law you could be facing life in prison.

Earlier this week, a state appeals court in Los Angeles upheld a guilty verdict against a man named Ronnie Henning. According to court papers, he burglarized the apartment of a woman he met through an Internet personals site, made off with her laptop and certain accessories, and promptly sold them to a pawn shop for $250--but not before wiping her hard drive and changing the administrator's username to one identical to his online dating alias.

The court didn't take kindly to the reported repeat offender, who had been previously charged with felonies summarized as involving "moral turpitude." Henning now potentially faces 31 years to life in prison, thanks to a so-called Three Strikes law, which requires lengthier punishments to convicts with three or more prior felony convictions under their belts.

The episode that prompted the conviction dates back to February 2005, according to the court documents, when Rachel Daniels agreed to give Henning her mobile phone number and to meet him in person after they connected through an unnamed online dating site.

Henning went on to call Daniels at around 9:30 one night, tell her his truck had broken down, and request that she pick him up. Daniels obliged, and upon meeting her, Henning asked if he could borrow $70 to buy a truck part from a friend. Daniels realized she'd forgotten her wallet, so she drove both of them back to her house to retrieve it. There, she received what was arguably her first omen: Henning "commented favorably" on a laptop perched on the arm of her sofa, the court opinion said.

Daniels proceeded to drive Henning to the friend's house in purported quest of the auto part. But when he emerged with only a paper bag and asked her to drive him to another friend's house to get the "complete" part, she started to feel uneasy and drove him home, according to the court records. Still feeling apprehensive alone that night in her abode, she opted to stay at a friend's place.

Prompted by a call from her landlord the next morning, Daniels returned to her apartment to find that the door frame had been shattered, the door kicked in, and her laptop, modem and phone cord apparently stolen. A few weeks later, police informed her they had found a computer with her serial number at a pawn shop. Her files had been deleted, and the administrator's name had been set to "Baby Come Close"--Henning's username on the online dating sites.

According to court papers, it wasn't an isolated incident. At trial, another woman who had met Henning through the same site (and same username) a year earlier testified that he had stolen her car one night while she was asleep and given it up as "collateral" for gambling losses. (She ultimately recovered her vehicle; there were no charges against Henning in that episode.)

Henning denied wrongdoing in both incidents, according to the court papers. He said that he had instructed a friend to return the car and its keys belonging to the woman in the earlier incident. In the later case, he testified that he and Daniels had been dating for a week and that she had voluntarily given him her older laptop. He said he decided to pawn it after Daniels discovered Henning actually had a live-in girlfriend, blew up at him, and demanded that he return the machine.

The trial court didn't buy those arguments, and neither did the appeals body. There were too many similarities between the cases for anyone not to infer that Henning hadn't committed the laptop burglary, the appeals court wrote.

"Indeed, appellant testified he met them both through the same Web site," the court wrote. "He told both of them he had no children, when he in fact had nine children, and did not tell either of them he had a live-in girlfriend. He lied to each woman to obtain money from her."

Henning had appealed the verdict against him on several grounds: among other things, that the jury didn't have enough African-American members to provide a "representative cross-section of the community," that there wasn't enough evidence against him, and that the Three Strikes law was applied improperly. The appeals court, for its part, rejected all of those claims.