A photographer turned the tables on the woman who stole her identity

Jessamyn lovell, dear erin hartJessamyn LovellJessamyn Lovell watched her identity thief, Erin Hart, from a private investigator’s surveillance car.

The phone rang one late morning in late February 2011, and Jessamyn Lovell‘s life was changed.

The San Francisco Police Dept.’s financial-crimes unit called to ask if Lovell had given a woman named Erin Coleen Hart permission to use her New Mexico state driver’s licence. Hart had committed a number of crimes, including petty theft, using Lovell’s name and identity.

Lovell, a photographer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, felt a dire need to piece together how her and Hart’s lives became connected. Over the next three years, she documented Hart’s crime scenes, release from prison, and transition back to normalcy.

We’ve published snippets of the resulting project, “Dear Erin Hart,” with the photographer’s permission. You can learn more about Lovell’s journey by visiting her website and preordering her book, “Dear Erin Hart.”

The San Francisco Police Dept.'s financial-crimes unit called Jessamyn Lovell one morning in February 2011 to ask if she had given a woman named Erin Coleen Hart permission to use her New Mexico state driver's licence.

A month later, the Alameda County Court summoned Lovell to California for 'unspecified charges.' She had her fingerprints taken, showing she was not the same woman who was arrested, and the charges were dropped.

Lovell pieced together that Hart had committed petty theft and used her ID at the time of arrest. Though Lovell was in the clear, her feelings of frustration and vulnerability lingered.

'I got incredibly angry at this woman, Erin Hart,' Lovell says. 'I decided to try and find her and sort out what else she may have done with my ID.' She retraced Hart's steps to the Hotel Vitale, where Hart was arrested.

Then Lovell visited the address on Hart's driver's licence at the time of her 2011 arrest. No one answered when she buzzed.

After two years of fruitlessly searching for Hart, Lovell hired Peter Siragusa, a private investigator and former San Francisco cop. He found Hart in jail, and obtained this photo from her booking.

The court had found Hart guilty on several charges, including one related to Lovell's case, and sentenced her to eight months in a city lockup.

Lovell eventually hopped a plane to California, to meet Siragusa and stake out Hart's early release from prison.

Together Lovell and Siragusa sat in his car for hours, waiting for Hart to resurface from county jail.

'Going into the stakeout, I did not know for sure if I wanted to approach her or not,' Lovell says. 'I worried how she would react to me confronting her in person only hours after she was released from jail.'

Finally, Hart appeared. From Siragusa's surveillance vehicle, Lovell captured these first images of her identity-thief leaving the jail's release point.

A newly freed woman, Hart went to the Extra Mile convenience store, where she bought Camel cigarettes and a lighter and used the bathroom.

She then got on a bus and went to a Good Will secondhand store. 'I jumped out of the surveillance vehicle and snapped this image with my iPhone of her shopping,' Lovell says.

Lovell followed on foot, keeping a distance so she wouldn't be noticed. The crosswalk was the closest she came to Hart.

Hart then boarded a city bus headed toward San Francisco's Mission District, in a low-income area.

As the day progressed, 'I began to feel a sort of empathy for her,' Lovell says, 'and what must have led her to steal people's identities.' She and Siragusa lost track of Hart as she wandered into an alley near a taqueria.

Hiring a private investigator cost several thousand dollars, so Lovell couldn't afford to keep the stakeout going more than a day. But she had collected enough documentation to show it as an art piece at the San Francisco Camerawork Gallery.

Last December, Lovell mailed an invitation to the exhibition opening and this letter, which a probation officer distilled and emailed to Hart.

Hart never came to the gallery, but Lovell (pictured) has made her peace. 'The relief came from the knowledge that she knew who I was and what I had done,' Lovell says. 'I'm not just some random identity she stole.'

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