Crime: Recorded in the Act | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Crime: Recorded in the Act 

If you're going to rob a tech-savvy business like an Internet cafe, maybe wear a mask.

At 3:45 AM on September 18 a man began throwing a spark plug repeatedly at the glass front door of Cyberia, an Internet cafe in River North. When it didn't break after 15 minutes, he walked to a side window and tried his luck there. It was good. He shattered the glass, stacked the window's icicle-shaped shards into a neat pile, and stepped inside. He emptied the cash register and safe and took off with a 38-inch plasma TV under his arm. He left behind a glove and partial prints on a cable that had been connected to the TV. But his biggest mistake may have been his choice of target: hit an Internet cafe and your image just may end up on the Internet, for all the world to see. "You'd think he would know better," says owner Nick Stellato, who's posted screen shots of security camera footage on the cafe's Web site, cyberiacoffee.com, and plans to post video of the crime too. You can also see it on our Web site, chicagoreader.com.

Stellato opened Cyberia at 701 N. Wells on "a shoestring budget" at the end of July and managed to upgrade his basic insurance policy to cover theft about two weeks before the break-in. There's been a spate of burglaries in the area--a week earlier Stellato helped his neighbors at the Blue Frog Bar & Grill clean up after they were hit--but because the burglary happened so soon after the policy change, his insurance won't cover the loss, he says. Three windows needed to be replaced because of damage to the frames and the store was shuttered for a day while police processed the crime scene. Including the TV and the $2,000 cash from the register, Stellato estimates the burglar set him back around $15,000: "He even took pennies, which is nuts."

Cyberia is one of two businesses that Stellato owns. In late 2003 he started Energy for Everyone, which provides free Internet service and Web hosting to anyone who will "agree to do something nice for someone." He powers the six-floor office building in which it's based, 676 Media Center at 676 N. LaSalle, entirely with solar and wind energy and uses its extra bandwidth to beam out free WiFi to anyone within reach--at least a 12-block radius, he says.

A self-described "coffee addict," Stellato says he opened Cyberia across the street from Energy for Everyone because he wanted a good place to get coffee in the neighborhood and because seeing people in the street with their laptops open, soaking up the WiFi, made him think, "Wow, I bet they'd pay for a cup of coffee." Stellato buys Cyberia's coffee, pastries, and sandwiches from other local businesses and trains his staff to give new customers their first cup of coffee free.

Stellato says the burglary brought "negativity and trauma" to the cafe. His baristas are now afraid to come to work, believing the burglar will return now that he "knows the lay of the land." Stellato has armed them with pepper spray and has been waking up at 5 AM to open the cafe with them and returning at midnight to close it himself.

"We're a small business, we do more good than harm, we give more than we take, and we try to treat everybody fairly," he says. "Starbucks doesn't deserve a burglary any more than we do, but to them it would be a negligible expense; to us it's a critical expense."

Stellato says he watches the security video of the break-in repeatedly, frame by frame, thinking he might see something new. It irks him every time. "I could see some starving homeless person throw a rock at the window and sell a TV for food," he says while watching it again one recent afternoon. "But this guy is better dressed than I am." The man in the video is wearing a basic green-and-white striped pullover and jeans, but Stellato notes that he's "well groomed" and has on "expensive-looking" sunglasses and sneakers. Stellato's also disturbed by the seeming ease with which the man moves through the cafe--"like it's any day at the job."

Stellato is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the suspect's arrest. And, of course, he's making sure that as many people as possible get a good look at him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nick Stellato photo by Robert Drea.

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