The bad guys were in the process of divvying up their ill-gotten gains.
Within a few minutes, they would be in the wind — hiding from the law after stealing the entire household belongings of a family in the process of moving out of state.
But the actions of a young assistant manager of a storage facility in Garden Grove on Sunday led to a journey the three suspects weren’t expecting:
A one-way trip to Orange County Jail.
‘THAT WAS WEIRD’
Sarah Nguyen, an assistant manager at Santa Storage and Business Center, 11284 Westminster Ave., showed up for work at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 19 and immediately noticed something suspicious on the surveillance monitors in the office:
A Toyota van sitting atop a U-Haul trailer.
Santa Storage rents out U-Haul trucks, but not trailers.
“I thought that was weird,” Nguyen said.
So the 22-year-old called a U-Haul office and was able to find out who had rented the trailer: a couple with three children from Cypress who were moving to Washington state.
She called the family and talked to the father, who told her the van, trailer and a 26-foot U-Haul truck had been stolen the day before from the Hyatt House Cypress Anaheim in Cypress.
In the truck were all the family’s belongings from their home.
Furniture and jewelry.
Computers and other electronics.
Priceless family pictures and other heirlooms.
Lots of clothes.
“I was shell-shocked,” Nguyen said.
Walking around the storage facility, Nguyen and another employee came across three men unloading items from a 26-foot U-Haul truck into a storage unit and two other vans.
Nguyen recognized the men; they had been renting the unit, in addition to two other units, at Santa Storage for about three months.
“I would see them now and then, and they would always be friendly to me,” she said.
Soon, they wouldn’t be.
HUGGING AND SOBBING
Nguyen called the Garden Grove PD.
She also scoured surveillance video and saw the U-Haul truck carrying the van on the trailer entering the facility at around 4 p.m. Saturday, April 18.
After Nguyen called the GGPD just after 11:30 a.m. Sunday, officers set up a perimeter and quickly detained two suspects.
They detained the third, after an assist from an Orange County Sheriff’s Department air unit, who had bolted away on foot. He was found a couple of blocks away in the bushes of a yard on Progresso Street in Santa Ana and arrested.
The suspects — Pedro Perea, 36, of Garden Grove; David Perez, 35, of Santa Ana; and Sergio Flores, 24, of Garden Grove — were booked at Orange County Jail on suspicion on possession of stolen vehicle parts, grand theft property and vehicle theft.
The family from Cypress was extremely grateful to have their belongings back.
“The father kept hugging me and the mother was crying,” Nguyen said. “It was everything they owned.”
Garden Grove Police detectives went to work and were able to locate more of the family’s belongings at residences in Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
Total value of the stolen property: around $50,000.
Garden Grove Police personnel worked the scene until around 3 a.m. Monday morning and were back a few hours later to help the Cypress family pack their belonging into a U-Haul truck.
They spent about five hours Monday helping the family load the truck.
From what Garden Grove detectives could gather, the suspects preyed on packed moving vans to steal them and quickly sell the merchandise at swap meets, said Sgt. Carl Whitney.
On Saturday, the Cypress father walked out of the hotel to check on the U-Haul only to see it and the trailer carrying the family van speeding away.
“I can’t imagine seeing your entire home drive away,” Whitney said.
The Cypress Police Department helped the family out by arranging for them to stay at the hotel for a couple of nights for free and also providing them meals.
Whitney wrote an intra-department memorandum Monday to Garden Grove Police Chief Todd Elgin. In the memo, he commended the GGPD employees who helped load the U-Haul.
The personnel were:
Corp. Juan Centeno
Officer Nate Cox
Corp. Carlos Bautista
Officer Brian Hatfield
Officer Steve Estlow
Officer Ron Reyes
Officer Steve Ortiz
Officer Ryan Lux
Det. Luis Payan
Det. Pete Garcia
Det. John Casaccia
Det. Dennis Wardle
CSO Steve Lukas
Cadet Shelby Keuilian
Sgt. Phil Schmidt
Sgt. William Allison
Schmidt presented Nguyen with a Chief’s Coin for Merit for her role that led to the arrests of the suspects.
Nguyen was honored for providing to police key information about the suspects and their movements prior to the officers’ arrival. She also gave detailed descriptions of the suspects and made identifications and also provided digital evidence for detectives.
In a note to employees, Garden Grove Capt. Ben Stauffer wrote:
Awesome work and true compassion and generosity in helping the family load up and get back on their way with literally their lives’ possessions intact. Thanks to all of you!
And Lt. Ted Peaslee wrote:
This is a great example of how people should be treated. Thank you all for your hard work. I am sure these people will remember what a great job you did for them.
Nguyen, a full-time student at Golden West College who, ironically, is studying to become a police dispatcher, said of her actions:
“I felt it was just the right thing to do. I’m humbled in a way.”