By Bruce Newman
Following the arraignment of a top Silicon Valley executive on four felony counts of burglary for swapping barcodes on a treasure trove of Lego toys, there was no shortage of theories Tuesday about what would turn a highly-paid tech titan into a sophisticated serial sticker stealer.
"I don't think it's money," said Supervising Deputy District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson, who brought the hammer of justice down on Thomas Langenbach during formal proceedings in Palo Alto. Langenbach declined through his attorney to enter a plea, and a hearing was scheduled for June 20.
"Money might have been a part of what brought him pleasure, but I think all indications are there's something way more complex here," Hendrickson said. "Remember, he's going out and paying for these things. This is something that he did in a painstaking way, and it took time, it took effort and it took expense. I don't think you do that just for the money. There had to be something else. Beating the system? An element of compulsion?
"I think it seems clear he took some enjoyment from having Legos around. But I think he also obviously had way more than any one human could possibly enjoy on their own in a legally acceptable way."
Ever since smartphones got their own bar code scanners, it's become commonplace for store security officers -- who carefully monitor surveillance cameras
But "loss prevention" officers at the Target on Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino had never seen anyone take an interest in bar codes quite like Thomas Langenbach, a top Silicon Valley executive with the global software giant SAP. Prosecutors charged Monday that Langenbach used the tools of his trade -- computer codes and the Internet -- to steal a Santa's workshop worth of Lego toys. They say Langenbach brought his own bar code stickers to the store, used them to cover up the real ones, and then purchased his plastic prey at enormous discounts.
Police in Mountain View, where many of the alleged thefts occurred at the Target store on Showers Drive, said that after obtaining a search warrant, they discovered a huge cache of Legos at Langenbach's large, $2 million San Carlos home, and eight Ziploc baggies containing dozens of bar code stickers in his car. Investigators counted "hundreds of unopened boxes of Legos," said Hendrickson, including 46 boxes of the "Magma Monster" set, and 35 boxes each of "A Frog Rush" and "Pharaoh's Quest" Lego sets. He also had a Wookie bar's worth of Lego "Star Wars" characters.
Quite a brickyard
Langenbach's eBay selling handle was "tomsbrickyard," and police believe he sold 2,100 items in just over a year on the auction website for $30,000. He had set up a stage in his home with the name on a whiteboard that he placed behind the items he posted for sale. "He had this whole enterprise going," Hendrickson said, "although I realize that's probably the wrong term to use when you're talking about 'Star Wars' Legos."
It was actually Target security that cracked the case, then turned the bar code bandit over to the cops. According to police, Langenbach was observed buying two Lego items at reduced prices on April 20 -- truly a Black Friday for him, if convicted. Then he hustled over to the Mountain View Target and bought two more Lego sets at a fire sale savings of $170.
That set off a quiet dragnet in Target stores, with flyers issued to security that included a picture of Langenbach, though his identity was still unknown.
Langenbach's luck ran out on May 8, when a "loss prevention" officer on duty at the Mountain View Target recognized the larcenous Lego mega-moocher and immediately placed him under surveillance. According to police, Langenbach not only placed his own bar codes on several items, he checked them on the store's aisle scanners to make sure he was getting the low, low price. He put stickers on three boxes but put two of them back on the shelves. When he walked out with one set he didn't pay full price for, store security nabbed him and called the cops.
At his home, investigators discovered "many, many sets of Legos that he had built, separated in bricks by color, by type, by size," said Liz Wylie, a spokeswoman for Mountain View police. "The motive was clearly money. Why does he want the money? I don't know. I can think of a million different possible scenarios. For some people it's boredom. For some it's a compulsive thing."
Lego is the brand name of an internationally popular line of colorful, interlocking, plastic bricks dating back to 1949. Coming in many sizes, they can be used to build scale models of vehicles, aircraft, buildings, and even working robotic figures. The bricks can be purchased in bunches or as parts of specialized sets. The toys have spawned clothing lines, theme parks, retail stores and thousands of worldwide building clubs populated by children and adults.
Langenbach has been with SAP -- Systems, Applications and Products -- since 1988. The German company has more than 55,000 employees worldwide. Following his booking, however, it wasn't clear whether Langenbach was one of them any longer. According to the outgoing message on his company voice mail, delivered in a distinct German accent, he is part of the Integration and Certification Center.
A recommendation from a colleague on his LinkedIn profile noted Langenbach's "strong technology savviness, business acumen, creative and innovative thinking." In this case, those virtues might prove to be his undoing.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.