When Bob and Sunny Riling came home to Cooper City after a family vacation earlier this month, they planned on having plenty of photos from Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia that their kids could share with classmates.
A day before their American history tour ended, however, Bob Riling left the camera on the Washington Metrorail. "Such a boneheaded move," Riling said. "I was so upset, I couldn't eat dinner that night."
But that lost camera was back in the Rilings' hands Tuesday — thanks to a good Samaritan-turned-detective who found the digital device on the subway 12 days ago and then went all out hunting for clues to the owner.
And Brian Pandya found one: a nearly-2-year-old snapshot on the camera's memory card traced to a Cooper City gym and eventually to the Rilings.
"This guy didn't give up," said Riling. 47. "He went beyond what I'd expect from people. I'm so grateful. I'm still in shock about it."
The story of the lost-and-found camera began Aug. 8 after a day of sightseeing when Bob and his wife Sunny Riling, along with their children Billy, 10, and Evy, 8, returned to their hotel room and dad realized what had happened.
A week's worth of photos — at the Liberty Bell, the White House, the Capitol — all gone.
Riling said he remembers what led up to the Metrorail mistake. After boarding, he said, "I put the camera on the seat, got busy talking and left it. I was so angry, so upset."
Three Metrorail stops later, the black digital Nikon was still there when Pandya, a patent attorney, boarded the Orange Line train for his commute home to Arlington, Va.
"My first and only thought was that I have to do something to get this back to its owner," said Pandya, 33.
Pandya said he called Metro's lost-and-found department, but no one had reported a missing camera. Hearing that, he decided not to hand it over to the subway system, fearing that it would "disappear into a black hole," he said.
Scrolling through hundreds of photos, Pandya said it was clear the camera belonged to vacationing tourists. But also on the camera were pictures of sporting events, holiday parties and grandparents going back years.
"That motivated me," said Pandya, himself a father of two. "I didn't want them to lose these family memories. They're irreplacable."
From from photos of palm trees and license plates, Pamdya said he deduced the camera's owner may be from South Florida. He spotted a sign with the name Weston, he said.
From there Pandya enlisted the help of friend and social media guru Chris Gaskill, who tweeted a couple of pictures from the camera, including one of a family of four posing on the National Mall.
"Do you know this family?" Gaskill's tweet asked. "Camera found on DC Metro. They appear to be from Weston, FL. Please RT to help find them."
That Tweet was reetweeted several hundreds of times, even picked up by SCOTUSblog, a legal blog whose Twitter account has more than 180,000 followers.
It also was shared on Facebook, Reddit and Imgur. With the search for the camera's owner now gone viral, The Washington Post wrote a story.
Ultimately, however, the breakthrough came not directly from social media but from the keen-eyed obervations from two of Pandya's colleagues, attorney Rachel Hunnicutt and staff assistant Lindsey Plummer.
They noticed a picture of what appeared to be a birthday party at Broward's Park Avenue Gymnastics. The time stamp on the picture was Dec. 2, 2012.
Plummer found a phone number for the gym's Weston location, talked to manager Katie Cohen and sent her the photo.
From the picture Cohen said she could tell the party was at the Cooper City gym.
She went to the archives, stored in boxes, and found that one of the several celebrators that weekend was Billy Riling, then turning 9.
"I called the mom and asked if she had been in the D.C. area recently," said Cohen. "She was shocked. She thought that camera was gone. Very random."
When the camera arrived by FedEx on Tuesday afternoon, Billy and Evy were happy to see the pictures of themselves seeming to balance the Washington Monument in the palm of their hands.
Those are sure to be shared with classmates at Cooper City Elementary School, said Riling, a construction project manager.
Pandya said he knew from talking to Riling over the phone that losing the camera "cast a dark shadow over their vacation. They had two years of family photos on there."
Of his dogged determination to find the owner, Pandya said, "It was fun. People pitched in to make it exciting. And it was made more fun by having a happy ending."
Also glad to have taken part was Cohen.
"Cool story," she said. "There are good people out there."
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story.
Owner of camera ID'd
•The sleuthing began Aug. 8 when Cooper City resident Bob Riling leaves a camera, during his family vacation, on the Washington Metrorail.
Brian Pandya, of Arlington, Va., finds the digital Nikon three stops later. He scrolls through hundreds of stored photos and finds hints the camera's owners are from South Florida.
Pandya's colleagues notice a photo from a Dec. 2, 2012, birthday party at Park Avenue Gymnastics in Cooper City. A photo of the 2012 party is sent to a manager at Park Avenue's Weston location. Manager verifies party was at a Cooper City location where Billy Riling celebrated his ninth birthday.
Gymnastics staff contacts mom Sunny Riling and asks if family had been in the D.C. area recently.
Bob Riling and Pandya speak on phone, and camera arrives by FedEx on Tuesday at the Rilings' Cooper City home.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun