As students resumed classes last week at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, they felt a little more secure knowing that Principal Eric Stroupe has their back.
And that he comes to school every day fully dressed.
On July 9, Stroupe, along with a neighbor in his Mission Viejo neighborhood of Galicia, were hailed as heroes by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for chasing down a commercial burglary suspect who had eluded deputies for a few hours by hiding in a backyard.
OCSD deputies were able to catch two of the three suspects around 3 a.m. that morning, but the third still was on the loose when Stroupe woke up around 6:30 a.m.
A light sleeper, he had heard all the commotion a few hours earlier when a helicopter from the OCSD’s Duke air fleet joined dozens of deputies on the ground from Mission Viejo Police Services, as well as K9s, to canvass neighborhoods in the area of Oso and Marguerite Parkways.
The commotion started around 2 a.m.
Stroupe was able to fall back asleep around 4 a.m.
“The last thing I remember hearing was, ‘Come out with your hands up or we’re going to send in the dogs, and the dogs will bite,’” Stroupe recalled in a recent interview in his office at JSerra.
His wife and three children slept through the ruckus.
Stroupe woke up about 6:15 a.m. and went online and, through a social media app as well as the OCSD Mission Viejo Police Services’ Facebook page, learned that a subject, described only as a male Hispanic in dark clothes, still was at large.
Dressed only in white underwear and a black JSerra polo, Stroupe had breakfast and was brushing his teeth and was about to get in the shower when he heard his dog barking.
Tex, a border collie/Labrador mix, barks at strangers. Stroupe’s gardeners were working, so he figured a new guy had joined the crew.
But then Stroupe looked out his bathroom window from the top floor of his house and saw a man at the bottom of a landscaped sloped yelling, “That’s the guy, stop him!”
That man turned out to be Jeremy Lewallen.
Minutes earlier, Lewallen had spotted a man crawling out of a sliding door in his built-in backyard barbecue storage unit.
Lewallen, who was barefooted, chased the man out of his backyard in the area of Claro and Marguerite.
He spotted OCSD Sgt. Osterfeld and flagged him down.
Osterfeld began chasing the suspect up the landscaped hillside, but was too far behind to catch him.
That’s when Stroupe, witnessing the scene with his mouth full of toothpaste, made a split-second decision.
I’m going to go get that guy.
He saw the man run through his back and side yard.
Stroupe bolted out his front door and gave chase on the street, still only wearing a shirt and his “tightie-whitie” undies, a la the character Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”
Stroupe’s dog followed him.
Stroupe turned to Tex and said, “Go get him!”
Tex quickly reached the suspect and bit onto his jacket and didn’t let go.
Stroupe caught up and tackled the suspect in the street.
“I didn’t land on him or anything,” Stroupe said. “I just kind of threw him down.”
Stroupe, at 6 foot 8 and 275 pounds, easily overpowered the suspect, who stands around 5 feet 10 and weighs 180.
Less than a minute later, OCSD deputies arrived and arrested the suspect without incident.
Stroupe, 47, says he didn’t really think he was putting himself in danger when he decided to give chase.
At one point, however, when he brought the suspect to his feet, he saw the suspect making a move for his pocket.
Thinking he might have been reaching for a weapon, Stroupe grabbed both of his arms.
“He didn’t really resist,” he said. “And he said nothing the entire time.”
Stroupe’s wife, Christie, soon arrived at the scene.
“I had toothpaste all over my face and my hair was tussled, so I’m sure I looked quite rabid,” Stroupe recalled.
The deputies gave Stroupe grief about his appearance.
“First the cops laughed at me,” Stroupe said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, could you put some pants on, please? Is this the way you go out in public? They were just kind of busting my chops the entire time.”
Christie ran back inside the house to get him some shorts.
“She didn’t care about the fact that I apprehended the guy,” Stroupe said. “She was like, ‘The neighbors are going to see you in your underwear!’”
Stroupe played a year of Junior All-American Football and played a lot of basketball until a couple of years ago when he injured his back. His youngest child, Adam, 11, plays a lot of football and rugby.
“I practice tackling with him all the time,” Stroupe said.
He had never, however, tackled a suspect before until July 9.
Stroupe and Lewallen were awarded Challenge Coins and were acknowledged that same night at a Mission Viejo City Council meeting. Tex also got a coin, along with filet mignon and a bone.
Jeanne Noonan, a JSerra receptionist who lives in Stroupe’s neighborhood, hosted a happy hour on Sunday, July 14, to honor Stroupe and Lewallen.
After the incident, a colleague at JSerra posted a “Captain Underpants” picture on Stroupe’s office door.
Stroupe’s oldest child, Nick, is a sophomore at JSerra.
He got a lot of texts from friends saying, Your dad’s a legend!
Stroupe, a 17-year veteran at JSerra who has been principal for seven years, is handling all the attention with good-natured humor.
“It was interesting,” Stroupe said. “That prior weekend, there was that incident at Disneyland where a family fight erupted. Ironically, that was on my mind (the morning I tackled the suspect).
“I remember dwelling on that and thinking, ‘Why didn’t anybody step in?’”
The OCSD is thankful he and Lewallen did.
“They were very congratulatory and said we appreciate citizens stepping in and helping us when they can.”