Saturday, December 27, 2008

Noah's Ark of Stolen Computer Gear

Victor Papagno had two loves, federal prosecutor say: computers and stealing.

For the Navy, it was a devastating combination.

Over 10 years, authorities said, the computer technician with obsessive-compulsive disorder ran one of the biggest computer theft scams in local history. He stole more than 19,000 pieces of computer equipment from the offices of the Naval Research Laboratory in Southwest Washington.

The loot took up so much space that Papagno built a 2,775-square-foot garage to store it all. It cost the Navy more than $150,000 to inventory the stash of keyboards, monitors, floppy disks, hard drives, cables, batteries and a device to make security badges. When investigators came to haul the equipment away from Papagno's Charles County home, they needed an 18-wheeler.

He got away with stealing computer components from a secure Navy facility by walking out the front door with the booty in boxes -- an average of five items a day over a decade. The Navy never caught on. The tip that brought him down last year came from his estranged wife, authorities said.

The 40-year-old computer specialist, who pleaded guilty in October to theft of government property, was sentenced yesterday to 18 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman. The judge said he was disturbed by the "quantity, the value and the sensitivity" of the stolen items and ordered Papagno to repay the $159,000 it cost the Navy to retrieve and inventory the goods.

Papagno and his attorney blamed his stealing on mental illness, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was compelled to hoard things, particularly computer components, they said; Papagno did not sell most of the stuff, much of it old and destined for recycling bins or the trash heap. "I couldn't throw things away," Papagno told Friedman.

"One way to look at this crime is that it was about collecting," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mitzelfeld. "It's like the art buff stealing artwork because he wants to have his own collection."

Investigators were concerned that Papagno had pilfered sensitive data from the Navy lab. More than 7,700 stolen items held data. One floppy disk, for example, contained personal information on 300 employees at the laboratory. Investigators also found a device that creates security badges for laboratory workers. In his bedroom dresser, they found badges belonging to 10 of Papagno's co-workers, authorities said.

Scores of computer components in Papagno's house in Hughesville were new, some still in the packaging. Among them: 20 Macintosh G4 computers with a list price of $4,000 each, 10 Apple flat-screen monitors worth $1,500 each, external hard drives worth $350 and four Apple Thinkpad laptops that retail for $3,500 each. Both sides put the value of the stolen goods at more than $120,000. The items were worth at least $1.6 million new.

He also targeted retailers with bogus manufacturer coupons and rebate certificates. Investigators said he bought legitimate ones on eBay, then created copies on his computer. He bought goods with them and returned the items for gift cards. Investigators said they found "bags of gift cards and receipts" in Papagno's home.

Papagno began stealing in 1997 while he was working as a computer specialist at the Navy lab. He told investigators it was easy; the Navy had lax inventory controls and bought computers with "reckless abandon." The Navy did not track items worth less than $2,500, investigators said.

Papagno told authorities he was building a "Noah's Ark of Computer land," special agent Timothy Hall of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service wrote in court papers. The computer specialist said he "loved to steal," Hall wrote, and he told a friend that he planned to auction the equipment on eBay.

Over the years, Papagno sold some of the equipment to friends and gave away other items. He used some parts in his "freelance" business, installing and upgrading computer networks and software, prosecutors said.

When he began to run out of space at home, he persuaded one friend to store items in the basement of her 90-year-old father's house, investigators said, and another to rent a storage locker for him so his wife would not find out. But those were temporary solutions.

In 2000, investigators said, Papagno built the garage. It cost him $50,000.

Source: Washington Post, December 23, 2008

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