A man was arrested after footage was taken of him flying a drone that he allegedly stole. (Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC)

A man was arrested after footage was taken of him flying a drone that he allegedly stole. (Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC)

Suspect filmed himself flying a stolen drone

Over $40,000 of equipment was taken from Snohomish-based DieHard RC. Most of it has been returned.

SNOHOMISH — When Brenda and Brett Wilson parked their trailer in a church parking lot Feb. 10, during the month’s historic snowstorms, they didn’t think they would have a reason to worry.

They’re the owners of DieHard RC, a Snohomish-based company that hosts competitive drone and radio-controlled car races. And inside the trailer was at least $40,000 worth of equipment.

A couple of days later, they checked on the trailer. Everything was gone.

Brenda Wilson said she wasn’t sure what they would do. Their summer programs, including a camp for kids, would be greatly affected, and they didn’t have the money to replace the lost items.

Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC, had more that $40,000 worth of equipment stolen, but much of it was recovered thanks to GPS data found on one of the drones. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC, had more that $40,000 worth of equipment stolen, but much of it was recovered thanks to GPS data found on one of the drones. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

So she wrote on Facebook asking for help, and people stepped up. Since then, the original post got more than 1,000 shares, an online fundraiser brought in nearly $10,000 and several companies donated cars, drones and other equipment to help keep the business going.

“It’s been really overwhelming to see how people have come together,” she said.

With the help of the Snohomish Police Department — and an unlucky blunder on the thief’s part — the Wilsons also have recovered most of their equipment.

Snohomish police Sgt. Nathan Alanis said a security camera provided the first clues. While the theft itself wasn’t captured, a Honda Odyssey could be seen entering and leaving the parking lot several times during the night. When it left, it was noticeably heavier, with the bottom leaning closer to the ground, Alanis said.

After Brenda Wilson’s post went viral, the police were tipped off to a possible suspect. A man said he was recently gifted a drone and RC car — and they were perhaps a little too nice. They were confirmed as stolen. He told officers where the seller likely was.

GPS data found on one of the stolen drones led to Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC, recovering equipment worth more that $40,000. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

GPS data found on one of the stolen drones led to Brett and Brenda Wilson, owners of DieHard RC, recovering equipment worth more that $40,000. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Police went to the suspect’s house March 17. A Honda Odyssey was there, and through the window they could see RC equipment. They impounded the vehicle and recovered the $14,000 of cars and drones that were inside.

The man was booked into the Snohomish County Jail for investigation of first-degree possession of stolen property and second-degree stolen property trafficking. He was released after posting bail a day later.

Among the recovered items were five drones that the Wilsons had on consignment, and which belonged to Autel Robotics in Bothell.

Brian Sonnleitner, who manages warranty and repair operations for Autel, said he was taking an inventory of the damage for insurance purposes. The fifth and last drone he checked had a memory card with nine gigabytes of photos and video.

In the footage was the man who had apparently stolen the drone. License plate numbers and the general geography of the area also could be seen.

Sonnleitner said the video doesn’t record automatically. Rather, the user had to manually turn on the camera for it to work.

“They actually filmed themselves and took pictures of themselves while flying,” he said.

In addition, Sonnleitner extracted GPS data showing coordinates of where the drone had been.

Alanis said it made his job as a police investigator a lot easier. On March 20, they found another $16,000 worth of equipment at a house in east Snohomish County, along with a shotgun that was stolen from a Machias home in December. Police and sheriff’s deputies are investigating whether the man had stolen items belonging to other people.

No charges have been filed yet.

Out by French Creek in Snohomish, the Wilsons now are prepping their outdoor fields for drone racing and summer programs. With the returned equipment and the extra support they’ve received, they believe they can come back stronger than ever. They’ve started seeing more novice racers express interest, and they have plans to expand a program that introduces veterans to racing.

And when it comes to the alleged thief, Brenda Wilson believes some appropriate poetic justice has been served.

“They stole the drones, they flew the drones — the drones are what put them in jail,” she said.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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