Philly Chef Foils World’s Dumbest Caper With Dirt-Simple Sting

Jennifer "Fear" Zavala's laptop and her son's PlayStation were taken while they slept. They turned up in easily identifiable Craigslist postings the same day.

Jennifer "Fear" Zavala with her husband (left) and friends at her wedding. Courtesy Jump Philly.

Jennifer “Fear” Zavala with her husband (left) and friends at her wedding. Courtesy Jump Philly.

If your house were ever robbed, you’d probably call the police and wait for them to do their job. And since there are so many burglaries in the city, the chances of you ever recovering your possessions aren’t exactly promising. But if you’re Philadelphia chef Jennifer “Fear” Zavala (yes, her nickname is Fear), you take matters into your own hands.

Last week, Zavala, the 36-year-old alumna of Bravo’s Top Chef (season six) and of Philadelphia restaurants El Camino Real and Xochitl, proved she and her family are not to be trifled with after someone broke into her deep South Philadelphia home while she, her 8-year-old son and heavy metal singer husband were asleep.

Zavala woke up on Friday morning to find that someone had climbed through her kitchen window and taken her $3,000 Samsung laptop and her son’s PlayStation with all of its games, cords and controllers, and his phone. Her son’s backpack was also missing, its contents dumped out all over the floor, suggesting that the burglar probably used the bag to carry the stolen goods out of the home.

“I completely freaked out,” says Zavala. “It felt really fucking weird to have someone in my house like that. This is not the life that I want to live.”

Zavala called 911, and while she was waiting for police to arrive, she went to the neighbors’ houses to see if they, too, had been robbed. But she was the only unlucky one. Police came to the scene, and one dusted for fingerprints, because there were obvious prints left on the kitchen window.

While police started their investigation on Friday morning, Zavala launched her own.

“We got in my husband’s work van and went to the nearby methadone clinic to start asking questions,” she says. “I told them, ‘I’m not saying anybody here stole it, but I need you to tell me, where is the hustle?’ They said, This lady crazy.”

She went to pawn shops while her husband visited the local GameStop. She drove up and down the street looking to see if, perhaps, the burglar had discarded her son’s backpack on the sidewalk. It was a gray backpack covered with mustache images.

“I was stopping people on the street,” says Zavala. “I knocked on a drug addict’s door for information.”

And just as her door-to-door canvassing was beginning to seem fruitless, her husband called her to say that he found separate listings for the laptop and the PlayStation on Craigslist.

Of course, there are lots and lots of laptops and PlayStations on Craigslist, so how in the world could they know it was their property?

Well, when the seller took a photo of the laptop for the Craigslist ad, he did so with the laptop open and on, displaying Zavala’s desktop, depicting a photo of her son at FDR Park:

As for the PlayStation, there wasn’t anything particularly damning about the game unit itself in that Craigslist photo. But look closely, and you’ll see a gray backpack covered in mustache images in the bottom right-hand corner:

Zavala notified police of the ads. Then she had a friend of hers pose as a buyer. By the time they made contact, the PlayStation had already sold. But the laptop was still available.

“A $3,000 laptop selling for $180!” says Zavala. “It was so infuriating.”

The seller agreed to meet up with her friend at a location on the street. Some of the neighborhood boys – her whole neighborhood was up in arms and intent on finding the perp at this point – went over early to scout it out.

At 2:45 p.m. on Friday, just over 12 hours after the break-in was believed to have occurred, the friend and Zavala’s husband met the seller as scheduled, gave him the money, and walked away with the laptop.

Meanwhile, the police had been looped in on the citizen-organized sting and cops were dispatched to the scene of the buyback, where they arrested the seller, 21-year-old Joshua Grimes, on the spot. (In case you’re missing an XBox 360, Zavala says that this Craigslist ad is registered to the same phone number as the seller who had her laptop.)

As the police continue to investigate, Grimes has been charged with criminal mischief and receiving stolen property and released on bail. Grimes has had several relatively minor run-ins with the law in the past.

When Zavala and her family returned home after recovering her laptop and giving statements to police, the neighbors started arriving with beer, cheese and some homemade wine.

“It was great the way the neighborhood stood up,” she says. “We have to stick together.”

As for her son, he turns 9 in less than two weeks, and Zavala has set up a GoFundMe page to try to raise $600 to replace the things that were taken from him and not recovered.

“It’s not easy to turn the other cheek,” admits Zavala. “But that’s what I had to do to show my son how to handle things properly. He’s the best.”​

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.