Joshua Taylor listed his old MacBook on Craigslist for extra cash. But after meeting a potential buyer at a coffee shop, the 25-year-old was detained by officers—two dressed in tactical gear and a third in plainclothes—from the Atlanta Police Department. Taylor would soon learn he was the target of a mysterious, and botched, sting operation.
The architecture student is the son of Goldie Taylor, a political commentator and editor-at-large for The Daily Beast. On Monday, Taylor released a statement saying police never identified themselves, acted without probable cause, enacted a warrantless search and used a decoy to lure her son to Caribou Coffee in the Buckhead business district.
Taylor tells his story to The Daily Beast.
I work for a set design company and was short on cash. My job was supposed to be super busy for the summer but I haven’t been full-time. My dad had given me his extra computer, so I decided to sell mine: a 14-inch, 2012 MacBook Pro. At the time, it was the highest model and I used it for architecture school.
I’ve posted things on Craigslist before and hadn’t had any issues. This was probably my fifth or sixth time. I’ve listed iPods or old gaming systems and never had any issues. This is the most expensive item I’ve ever sold. The ad said “$1,000 or best offer.” It was very basic, with two pictures, and I said you’d need an install disk to use the laptop. I got three initial responses. The first person who answered offered $900. But when I provided the computer’s serial number, the buyer found out it didn’t meet their specifications.
After that fell through, I got an email from a “Derek Charleston.” He offered $950. We began talking about meeting up, and the entire process never seemed suspicious at all. But he was dead set on meeting Thursday of last week and said it was for work reasons. I guess it was how “they” were setting things up. They needed that time. I was available Sunday, Monday, every day. I kept asking him, “Are you available today? Are you around?” Then I wouldn’t get a response until eight or nine hours later. He would just keep reiterating that he was available Thursday.
We met at a Caribou Coffee at 2 p.m. He was in his early to mid-thirties, with long brown hair past his shoulders. He kind of looked like Chris Ferguson, the poker player, a Cowboy-looking guy. He had light facial hair and sunglasses on. He was just sitting on the patio outside there and didn’t have coffee. It was me, him, and probably six to seven other groups of people. When I sat down, Derek said he worked with computers but didn’t mention any specifics. Nothing seemed weird at all.
I sat across from him, pulled out the computer and he opened it up. I’ve already told everyone they needed an install disk, because I moved all the information to my dad’s computer and the laptop’s operating system was gone. The only information would be the factory information about the computer. But instead of using an install disk, he attached a portable hard drive. He said it would take a couple minutes, so we started talking and I showed him the MacBook’s case, the extension cord, and the keyboard cover. I just wanted to make sure he had everything.
We’re just sitting there, and suddenly I’m approached from behind by an officer, or I think it’s an officer. He immediately orders, “Put your hands behind your back! Put your hands behind your back!” and he has something pressed into my back. I look over my shoulder and can see a big yellow Taser.
I first put my hands above my head, then had to lower them so he could handcuff me. Everyone at Caribou was staring at me. Time ceased for a few seconds. Then a woman approached on my left side. Both of them are dressed in tactical gear, with button-up shirts and khaki pants underneath. The woman asks Derek, “Is this the one?” “Yeah, I don’t know. Hold on just a second,” Derek says.
The female cop started asking me questions: “Where did you purchase it? What are you doing with this computer?” She was trying to get background information. I said I bought it in 2012 for architecture school. That this is my property. I broke down what I’d been using it for.
I was detained by Taser-point and handcuffed the entire time, while Derek was still accessing the computer. Derek tells the woman the C-number is off. Not the serial number—they were looking for some other number in the computer.
After Derek said it wasn’t the right number, the officer with the Taser told me to stand up and removed my handcuffs. The female officer only said, “Sorry. These things happen.” I started breaking down. I knew it could happen, but I also knew how wrong this was. I immediately felt so powerless and I wanted to get out of there. I asked no questions.
When I first got to Caribou Coffee, I noticed a brand-new silver Mercury with the windows blacked out, parked three cars down from me. It was so obvious, like every other undercover car you’ve ever seen. I said to myself, “Oh, yeah, oh the cops are getting coffee” and joked, “Oh, someone’s going down today.”
I started laughing as I reached my car, because I didn’t think it would ever be me. I immediately got out of there. I just had a Taser in my back. You don’t put those that close to somebody. It’s a long-range device, designed to disable from 15 to 20 feet. I was unarmed, so there was no reason I should have had a Taser in my back.
They never said anything like, “Federal agents. Hands up!” It was just, “Hands up! Where’d you get this computer?” Then, “Sorry, have a good day.” They never said who they were. You always just listen to a person who has a weapon. You don’t know how they’re feeling or how their day is going. I shut up and just went with the flow. I was completely defenseless and did my best not to move.
As I was walking to my car, the female officer was walking toward the silver Mercury. I asked, “Is this yours?” She said yes and that she was sorry. I started to cry. “I’m just trying to pay my bills and everything,” I told her. She tried to console me a little bit, before the cop with the Taser approached. A third undercover officer came out from the coffee shop, too. They all left in the same vehicle, while Derek left in another direction.
As I drove around the corner, I knew I needed to call someone and to return to the scene for more information. But they were already gone. There were no visible security cameras looking onto the patio either.
There’s still some gravity to this situation that I didn’t understand. I’ve got a lot of people talking about me and talking about Trayvon Martin and similar cases. That’s not a club I want to be in. I’m a light-complexioned black man, but that doesn’t feel comforting; it’s one of my biggest fears. It doesn’t make you feel good to think this happened to you, even though a lot of good things may come of this.
When I opened the computer up again, it showed me the standard desktop. On the righthand side was the name of a company in town that does technology services. The disk utility was open, and the disk doctor app was open. Derek had checked something in my disk utility system and didn’t fully eject his hardware.
The background of the computer had a bunch of saved icons with different numbers, such as Install 10.4 or Install 10.5. The logos were for OS X Snow Leopard or OS X Mountain Lion. But a lot of them had cover pictures of Elijah Woods from The Lord of the Rings for one system, or Tom Cruise as his Top Gun character for OS X Mavericks.
I called the technology company, and they had no idea about this kind of software. I gave them some vague information, then I opened up a little bit more about the story. A guy from the company said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. That’s crazy that happened to you. If I hear anything, I’ll get back to you.’”
The next day, Derek emailed me. It was completely unexpected. He went into detail about his situation, saying he’d been robbed and someone stole his laptop that had a lot of personal information about him on it. He also said he’d gone through a divorce and he’d been homeless and all kinds of other things. “If I told you everything, you’d think my life was a movie,” he claimed. He said he contracts for the technology company, which does IT solutions, but that they had no involvement.
Derek said he contacted police after finding my ad on Craigslist. He went on to say how he worked with the police, but he blamed them for moving too quickly. He said any action should be directed at them and that he sympathizes with my situation. He said he’s been in my shoes before, but didn’t elaborate. The police, he said, set up this whole game plan but just didn’t follow it down to the last few minutes. I guess he was supposed to go on my computer, and once he found the code he was looking for, he would either A) make a transaction and I would be arrested for selling stolen goods to him or B) he would make a motion and cops would come over. This is what I’m assuming. The cops didn’t even wait to move in.
In this guy’s case, he could have easily gone onto Apple.com and checked his receipt and compared serial numbers and we never would have been in this situation. If he bought his Apple products, he could log in and check his old receipts and old purchases. It would show the serial number, the one I provided the day before meeting him. It’s lazy police work. If they would have done this cop work, we wouldn’t be here.
They wasted man-hours and three to four cops, all because I tried to sell my own computer. I didn’t even know what officers detained me. For all I knew, it could have been the Secret Service. If someone steals your iPhone, you don’t get to walk down the street and point at everyone with an iPhone. I don’t understand how police got involved to run a sting operation in the first place. The effort level doesn’t make sense. It seems like they were looking for something more or something else.
All the unknowns just don’t feel good. Unfortunately, you’ve got a lot of police misconduct, but I never thought it would be on this level. You hear about disagreements between people and single officers, but you never hear about a full setup operation. It’s completely against everything they ever teach you about what this country stands for. You’re innocent until proven guilty. I was guilty until proven innocent.
As told to Kate Briquelet