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Let’s look at the question of who got the ball rolling in the case of the missing iPhone

Jason Chen with prototype. Credit: Gizmodo

Judging from reader comments, it’s clear that a lot of people following the story of the lost iPhone prototype assume that the California police task force launched their investigation — and raided the home of Jason Chen, the Gizmodo editor who ended up with the device — because Apple (AAPL) asked them to.

In a piece posted Monday, Yahoo News’ John Cook comes close to accusing Apple — and indeed, Steve Jobs himself — of orchestrating the probe based on the fact that Apple is one of 25 companies that sit on the steering committee of the police task force.

“Which raises the question,” he writes, “as to whether Apple, which was outraged enough about Gizmodo’s $5,000 purchase of the lost iPhone for CEO Steve Jobs to reportedly call Gawker Media owner Nick Denton to demand its return, sicked its high-tech cops on Chen.”

Cook, who wrote for Gawker before he joined Yahoo, may be in a position to know whether Jobs called his former boss. But he can only speculate about Apple’s role in the investigation.

“My inbox is chockablock with messages from those who think Apple initiated this,” writes Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, who has been one of Apple’s biggest defenders throughout the affair. He maintains that Cook — and the readers who think like him — have it all wrong.

“This is a criminal investigation, not a civil lawsuit,” he writes. “Apple gets to decide whether to file civil litigation. The San Mateo district attorney gets to decide whether to launch a criminal investigation. We don’t know yet whether Apple has been in contact with the DA, but, why wouldn’t they? They can tell the DA what happened. They can’t order the DA what to do.”

Which leaves open the question of whether Apple ever asked the authorities to look into the matter. We put that question to Apple public relations four days ago. We have yet to receive a reply.

UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader points out that the
Wall Street Journal
Monday quoted a deputy district attorney saying that Apple contacted authorities and “advised [them] there had been a theft,” which, according to the Journal, led to the search warrant and the investigation.

UPDATE 2: San Mateo County chief deputy DA Steve Wagstaffe offered more detail about Apple’s role in an interview Tuesday with the
San Jose Business Journal

“Wagstaffe said that an outside counsel for Apple, along with Apple engineer [Gray] Powell, called the District Attorney’s office on Wednesday or Thursday of last week to report a theft had occurred and they wanted it investigated. The District Attorney’s office then referred them to the Rapid Enforcement and Allied Computer Team, or REACT, a multi-jurisdictional, high-tech crime task force that operates under the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office.”

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]