Westminster officer loses handcuffs, unbelievably gets them back


While Star Wars figurines, Atari Pong and Evil Knievel toys were the top Christmas list picks for many 14-year-old boys in the 1970s, Westminster Cmdr. Al Panella was hoping for something less in-demand.

His cousin Margo, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, fulfilled his Christmas wish.

“She gave me the best gift any kid could ever get, and that was a pair of Peerless handcuffs,” Panella said. “I took them everywhere. They were my prized possession.”

He carried them during his first year as an Explorer with the Westminster Police Department.

He carried them in the pocket of his jeans while out with friends.

He carried them even when he had no place to carry them – like when he went running in his Dolphin shorts.

Those running shorts don’t leave room for much, let alone stainless steel cuffs.

So when Panella, an incoming freshman at Westminster High School at the time, went to train for the cross country team at the school’s track, his eyes scanned the stadium for the perfect place for his prized possession.

“I couldn’t leave them on a bench because I thought somebody might take them,” he said. “I looked to the highest point of the stadium, where I thought they’d be the safest.”

The highest point was a fence that stretched above the stadium’s observation tower.

Panella climbed up, slapped his handcuffs to the fence pole and went about his run.

When he went to retrieve them, his heart sank.

“I cuffed them with the keyholes facing each other,” he said. “I couldn’t get the key in.”

He ran home, sawed off the handle of the handcuff key in hopes he could wriggle the thin piece of metal between the handcuffs to unlock them.

It didn’t work.

“I was devastated and heartbroken,” Panella said.

Throughout his four years of high school, the handcuffs stayed locked on that fence.

Commander Al Panella of the Westminster Police Department. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

When he joined Westminster PD in 1988, they remained.

Work crews painted the fence every few years to spruce up the stadium, and those handcuffs were painted right along with it.

Layers of muted gray covered the smooth silver. Eventually, rust ate away at the fence and the cuffs that were wrapped around it.

“When I was on patrol, sometimes I’d go back to the campus and shine my light up there and kind of reminisce,” Panella said. “They were still there.

“Throughout the majority of my career, they stayed up there.”

In 2008, the stadium was slated for demolition. The fence, with his handcuffs attached, would be destroyed.

He shared the endearing tale with the officers he supervised in the traffic division.

Before then, Panella never told anyone at the department the story.

“They told me it was such a great story and that I should ask the construction foreman for my handcuffs,” he said. “I never really got around to it.”

Today, Panella can no longer shine his flashlight to the top of the high school stadium to reminisce about the days he dreamed of one day wearing the Westminster PD uniform.

He simply looks up from his desk.

There they sit, mounted on a wood stand, with a plaque that reads: “Panella’s Prized Handcuffs. 1980-2008:”

The traffic officers rescued his cuffs and memorialized them with a trophy as a ‘thank you’ when Panella was assigned to a new division.

“They stayed up there for 28 years,” Panella said. “And now they’re in my office.”