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Big Brother catches thief

- Cameras at Esplanade really work, just like in London
The infra-red camera, capable of capturing images in the dark and installed at Esplanade, that helped pinpoint the suspect. (Below) Some of the stolen cellphones

Calcutta, March 22: A man walks out of the Big Bazaar outlet at Chowringhee with two trolley bags and hails a taxi. A perfectly normal scene — except that it was 2am and the store had closed many hours ago.

Enter, Big Brother — CCTV cameras in public places that were once considered a symbol of an intrusive State but are ubiquitous after 9/11. As many as 55 such electronic eyes keep watch over the Esplanade-New Market area but only a few in the city are infra-red cameras that can capture images in the dark.

The unlucky thief stepped out through Big Bazaar’s Gate 2 that opens into SN Banerjee Road — bang opposite where the police have installed one infra-red camera.

That’s how, officers say, they have cracked one of the most meticulously planned thefts in the city’s recent history, its plot involving a “secret passage” in the landmark, over-a-century-old Metropolitan Building that houses the store.

Outlet guard Suraj Kumar Sau had allegedly packed 204 mobile phones, 20 tablet computers, 12 digital cameras, 143 sets of costume jewellery and two smaller trolleys into two larger bags and walked out on Thursday.

The police claim to have recovered Rs 35 lakh worth of booty from the 24-year-old father of two baby daughters, who had been working at the outlet for the past nine months and had mapped out the building.

Officers said the thief had entered the building through the “secret passage” — leading from the rear of the building on SN Banerjee Road to a rather weak wooden door, unused for years, that opens onto the store’s first floor.

He had allegedly unlatched the door from inside the store during the working hours. After the heist, he used the emergency keys kept inside the store to lift the shutters and step out, the police said.

Why he didn’t leave the way he had entered is unclear: perhaps he didn’t fancy manoeuvring the heavy trolleys through the long, narrow, dark passage. If choosing Gate No. 2 was his first mistake, his second was to take off his mask to hail the taxi, officers said.

The infra-red camera captured his face.

“Sau had wrapped his face in a towel to cheat the cameras inside the store, but he couldn’t have stopped a taxi with the hood still on him,” an officer said.

In the 48 hours since learning of the heist on Thursday morning, the Calcutta police did what their London counterparts had done after the 7/7/2005 bombings: scan hours of CCTV footage from multiple traffic cameras.

London police are said to have examined about 2,500 pieces of CCTV footage and forensic evidence.

In Calcutta, the cameras throw up live pictures on screens supposed to be monitored at the police headquarters in Lalbazar. The videos are then archived for several weeks before being erased automatically.

Once a police team spotted the suspect, the cops went through the photo identity cards of all the store’s 100-odd employees to match the face.

Sau was arrested this morning from his home in Baksara, Howrah, about 12km from Calcutta, deputy commissioner (central) D.P. Singh said. The guard, posted at the store by a private security agency at a daily wage of a little over Rs 280, has been remanded in police custody for six days.

One of Sau’s daughters is aged a little over a year and the other is barely a month old. He had skipped work since Thursday on the plea that one of his daughters was ill.

Officers said he had told the police he committed the crime because he was “unable to make ends meet”.

Sau, who was in charge of security at Gate No. 1, which faces Chowringhee, had left after work on Wednesday night only to return within an hour. Both Gates 1 and 2 have a glass door and auto-locking iron shutters, sleuths said, but the outlet is unguarded at night.

Manish Agarwal, business head (east), Big Bazaar, told this newspaper: “A burglar alarm is installed in some of the entry points. It is not possible to cover all the points… there are so many.”

An officer said Sau, in his hurry, had left the shutters half open and the keys lying on the floor.

The police have advised Big Bazaar authorities to secure all the entry and exit points with burglar alarms, install CCTV cameras outside the store and deploy night guards at the two main entrances at least.