A stakeout operation conducted by the Department of Safety and Security resulted in a car chase last week when a man suspected of theft fled from campus security and then led state and local police in a high-speed pursuit.

Last Friday, an undercover officer dressed as a student observed Matthew Lajoie, 19, a Brunswick resident, exhibiting suspicious behavior in the northwest corner of the basement of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library shortly after 1 p.m.

According to a security report, the officer heard the sound of items being placed into a backpack and the sound of a backpack being zipped. The officer moved toward the carrel where the sounds originated, and noticed that Lajoie had retreated into the stairwell.

The undercover officer used his radio to notify his colleagues, who were positioned outside the library near its main entrance. Officer David Mercier confronted Lajoie as he exited the library, and Lajoie took off running up College Street toward Maine Street.

Mercier pursued the suspect on foot. Lajoie turned right on Park Row and climbed into a blue Ford Focus. He did not acknowledge Mercier as the officer attempted to open the vehicle's door. Lajoie started the engine and backed up quickly, nearly striking Mercier, who had moved toward the car's rear to try to read its license plate number. Lajoie then peeled out down Park Row toward town at a high speed.

Mercier used his radio to contact another security officer, JoJo Craig, who was patrolling the campus perimeter in a Security vehicle. Craig pulled on to Maine Street behind Lajoie and confirmed the license plate number while the Communications Center notified the Brunswick Police Department (BPD). Craig then stopped following Lajoie in accordance with Security's policy against engaging in vehicular pursuits.

BPD relayed the description of the car and its driver to the Topsham Police Department (TPD) and the Freeport Police Department (FPD). A FPD officer soon spotted the blue Focus speeding south on U.S. Route 1. After attempting unsuccessfully to elude police by pulling into the driveway of an auto body shop, Lajoie sped away in the direction of Freeport Village before turning right and merging on to Interstate-295.

Maine State Police troopers joined the FPD as they pursued Lajoie north on I-295. Lajoie exited onto Maine Route 196 and sped through two red lights before attempting to take a hard right onto Mallett Drive. According to Sgt. Nate Goodman of the FPD, the Focus was unable to complete the turn, and the car "went airborne" and crashed into a ditch on the side of the road before bursting into flames. Officers and bystanders extracted the suspect from his burning vehicle.

Lajoie was transported to Maine Medical Center in Portland and treated for a head injury. He was released midday Sunday and transported to Cumberland County Jail. He has been charged with eluding a police officer, driving to endanger, violating conditions of release (from a prior arrest), and operating a vehicle with a suspended license.

Lajoie has not been charged with theft. Director of Safety and Security Randy Nichols would not disclose what TPD officers recovered from Lajoie's backpack, but mentioned that no students reported any stolen items from Hawthorne-Longfellow that day.

"If something was stolen, it hasn't been reported yet," he said.

On Thursday, BPD issued a "no trespassing" warning that makes it a crime for Lajoie to set foot on any college property.

Security planned the stakeout in response to a rash of recent thefts in Hawthorne-Longfellow. On April 11, a TI-83 calculator was stolen from the ground floor. On April 14, five books, an iPod, and a cellular phone were taken from a third floor carrel. On April 16, a student reported three books missing. On April 19, a laptop computer was reported stolen from a basement carrel, and later that day, another calculator disappeared.

"Based on the pattern over the last few weeks, we thought that we were going to get hit again, and we were right," said Nichols.

The undercover officer, dressed "like a Bowdoin student," had been assigned to make rounds in the library between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., paying especially close attention to the areas from which items had been recently stolen.

In light of the effectiveness of this strategy, Nichols indicated that Security might employ undercover officers to prevent crime on campus in the future, though he emphasized that Security has "no plans" to plant undercover officers at campus parties.

"We set up this operation to protect Bowdoin students," he said. "They were being victimized, and we had to put a stop to it."

Nichols mentioned that preventing crime in Hawthorne-Longfellow is more difficult than in many other campus buildings because it is so widely accessible and contains so many valuable items. Nichols said that he meets with library staff "regularly" to discuss crime prevention.

"A lot of the patrons are [non-students] and with that comes certain risks and problems," he said.

Security's joint investigation with BPD concerning the library thefts is ongoing. BPD questioned Lajoie on Thursday, but Nichols would not disclose the details of that interview. Security has not questioned any other suspects with respect to the thefts.

"We still have a lot of investigating to do," said Nichols.

In the meantime, Nichols advised students to "anticipate that the thefts will continue."

"Students should be cognizant that if they leave their belongings lying around, they might not be there when they get back," he said.

Nichols recommended using a security cable to protect electronic items. In the April 14 case in which books, an iPod, and a cell phone were stolen from a carrel, the thief spared a laptop computer whose owner had bound it to a nearby pole using a security cable.

"Most of these [thefts] are crimes of opportunity," said Nichols, who added that cutting a security cable is inconvenient for opportunistic criminals.