True Detective: How two jewelers solved a mundane small town mystery
Megan Proctor Connelley
Jewelry designer. Over analyzer.
This blog post should definitely come with a disclaimer that it's relevance to our jewelry is questionable at best....but amusing we hope.
This is the story about how in the course of normal day-to-day jewelry business, my assistant Bridget and I, became unintentional mystery detectives. Through our office windows, we witnessed a story unfolding over the course of eight months, and became so suspicious and invested in it's outcome... that it now gets a dedicated blog post.
Consider this the short story hybrid of Girl on The Train and the Adventures of Mary Kate & Ashley... except starring two nosey coworkers and two unsuspecting perpetrators.
In August of 2018, SEA+STONE moved into our downtown studio space. Our office is situated on the second floor above a restaurant on the main street of downtown Southern Pines. We have a beautiful balcony overlooking the street and sidewalk, as well as windows that stretch across the whole front of the building. The natural light makes it a great space for all things creative: jewelry making, designing, photoshoots, etc. The windows also make it a great place for people watching.
We live in a small town, so the people watching is pretty basic. We see the same "characters" passing by on a regular basis. We get the normal crowd: women pushing babies in strollers, people jogging by, dogs being walked, people pulling in and out of the restaurant beneath us for lunch, and gathering to chat with friends in the parking lot after their meals. We also get a couple more unusual sights: The gentleman who wears the same red cap every time we see him, the man who pushes his shopping cart up & down the main street, and the woman with the purple backpack who walks all the way from my house on the other side of downtown, past our office each week.
Its pretty easy to observe the general rhythm and ebb & flow of our little town as we make jewelry near the windows!
Shortly after moving in, we started to notice a large SUV that would cruise by our office several times a day and would slow to a crawl or often a complete stop RIGHT in front of our office. The first time it happened, we both commented how odd it was for someone to just stop in the middle of the street. Then it kept happening day after day, but only with this one car in particular.
They kept creeping by, always several times a day, but never at the same times. Sometimes they parked on the street, and other times they'd pull into our parking lot and linger for a few moments.
The car was easy to spot since it had a custom license plate, and since we grew familiar with the appearance of the driver.
Initially, it was just the man alone in his car. He was always on his cell phone (looking back and forth between it and the our general direction) when he slowly crept by or parked.
With a jewelry business, even one that isn't open for retail customers, you really can't be too careful. We've taken the basic precautions: a safe, a security system, cameras, keeping the doors locked after dark or when only one person is working. But something about this car driving by REALLY triggered something in both our guts that the behavior was definitely suspicious and potentially even sinister.
We began trying to guess what he was up to. Our first thought was that he was "casing the joint". Was he trying to learn more about our business, about the busy and slow times in the parking lot, about our coming & goings? Maybe he was scouting out another local business... like the bank down the road?
We would peek out through our windows, and I'm pretty sure he spotted us snooping a few times. We even used my telephoto lens on the camera and binoculars to try to get a better look- which is how we finally were able to get his custom plate written down (Bridget and I are both basically blind and usually without our glasses). We tried internet sleuthing for more information- trying to see if we could figure out whose name was associated with the custom tags.
Then we thought, maybe its not criminal! Maybe he's sneaking around to avoid getting caught in an affair! There are a lot of residential homes in the blocks around our office. Maybe he slows his car in order to text his mistress and make sure its a good time to come over?! This may sound like a crazy hypothesis, but this exact same behavior happened in my old neighborhood in Charleston and a concerned neighbor posted a description of the vehicle and person on the community Facebook page and blew the cover right off of that hanky panky in a post that went embarrassingly viral through our suburb.
Our next thought was that maybe he was a home delivery drug dealer making the rounds! Place your order, and he brings it right to you like the Dominos delivery man! But that hypothesis didn't quite make sense with such non-discrete custom plates...and with the fact that we live in a conservative town full of golfing retirees.
Maybe he had shady business to tend to that was best discussed from his car, not his home or office?
THEN A TWIST
Several of our theories were blown when a female started accompanying our mystery driver on his rides! The odd behavior persisted, with drive by's and stake outs happening right in front of the office daily...but now there was a woman (also ALWAYS on her cellphone) riding in the passenger seat. They started showing up more and more often, and at stranger times. When I worked late, I would notice them making their rounds just after sunset, too.
They looked a bit wholesome and vanilla to be involved in some of the crimes we had originally suspected him of, but you can't judge a book by its cover and after observing EIGHT MONTHS of this odd behavior, we started considering just giving up our mystery and reporting it to the police.
LATE ONE EVENING
Recently, I stayed at the office late to get some work done. I'm trying to work ahead before my due date to prepare for a little maternity leave, and my husband was also going to be working late...so it seemed like a great time to knock some things off my to do list. Bridget left for the day, and locked me into the office while I finished up my work. I got a lot done, and once the hunger pangs started kicking in, I decided it was time to gather my things and leave the office to go make dinner. I turned out the lights, and made my way downstairs with my purse and my dog Curtis in tow. I activated our alarm system and opened the door to our studio. Right as I opened the door, with arms full, and turned to lock it... I could hear a vehicle pull right behind me, into a dark and otherwise empty parking lot. I knew who it was before I even looked!
Sure enough, the white SUV had whipped into the lot right next to my car, the only other vehicle in the whole lot. And when I say whipped in, I don't mean pulled-in-between-the-lines like a civilized driver. I mean they just angled in, across several spots, with the front of their car pointed directly at the business door. "Ohhhh this is it. This is finally it", I thought to myself. I managed to lock the office door and quickly move to my car. Curtis must have sensed the urgency and hopped right in. And I probably moved faster than I have this whole pregnancy to get myself in the car and hit the lock button before they could make their move. Once in the car, I glanced over to take a look at the people. This would be the closest I had come to these sketchy people, and if I could just get a glimpse...maybe I would be able to describe them better to police or see what exactly they were doing.
I looked over and was relieved that neither of them were looking at me. They were holding their phones up and towards the building. It was pretty dark and both our cars had window tinting, so seeing was a struggle. But I could tell that they were probably both in their 60's, definitely didn't look like drug dealers... they really just looked like average people who probably watched Big Bang Theory on weeknights, took a once a year trip to Disney with their families, and probably enjoyed an occasional margarita at Chilis.
I was about to back my car up and leave when something caught my eye. They had something hanging from the rearview mirror. It was a ball...a red and white ball.... it was a Pokeball? And there were some items in the dash. Plush animals? Nope, plush Pokemons: as in Charmander, Pikachu, Squirtle.
AN UNLIKELY ENDING
Ohhhhh, the revelation hit me like a sack of bricks. My nefarious suspects had literally been crawling by and posting around my office numerous times a day FOR EIGHT MONTHS... to play Pokemon Go... a game that launched in Summer 2016, became a worldwide phenomenon, and then was clearly forgotten by me (but not by others) in the years since.
My hubby was wild about Pokemon Go when it came out, so I probably should have at least suspected it. But like most adults, including my husband, after initially downloading the app and driving around a few times to "Catch Em All", life's normal schedule and responsibilities took over, and the app started gathering digital dust in our phones.
The game was supposed to get kids out of the house, encouraging them to explore the real world with their mobile game. You would walk around catching Pokemon and going to real world locations called "Pokestops" where your phone would allow you to gather pokeballs and other items that help you in the game. As it turns out... my office parking lot is a "Pokestop", which explains why this mystery couple and their suspicious SUV visited numerous times a day.
After Pokemon Go launched, the game had to implement safety features since tons of car accidents and even fatalities were attributed to people playing the game while driving. Two researches did a study on the impact of the game on driving nationwide and concluded that in just five months (with some speculative data) that the nationwide “increase in crashes attributable to the introduction of Pokémon GO is 145,632 with an associated increase in the number of injuries of 29,370 and an associated increase in the number of fatalities of 256,”
Data and news reports like this is why Pokemon GO changed the rules of their game to improve safety. These rules are :
"Speed limit. If you exceed the speed limit, the game zeroes out any progress you have made in the last time window. This speed limit is 11mph (17.8 km/h).
Max distance per minute is 0.11 miles (175m). This translates to a top sustained speed of 6.5mph (10.46 km/h)."
And THIS explains eight months of very eerily slow "drive bys" made by our friends in the white SUV over the course of eight months!
I literally started cracking up when I realized that our months of detective work and speculation was over nothing more than two people playing a cell phone game. I immediately texted Bridget from the parking lot to let her know.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Stay curious and be vigilant. Remember that most people are good, a few people are bad, and some people just have questionable hobbies.