The silver Toyota Tacoma was packed with gardening tools and house cleaning supplies.
The patrol deputies flashed their lights.
The truck pulled into a residential driveway in San Clemente.
“What happened?” the driver, Anatoli Navarrete, asked the OCSD deputies, Cynthia Greene and Ryan Thwing.
In the passenger seat, Navarrete’s wife, Maribel, looked concerned.
The deputies told Navarrete they pulled him over because his windows had too dark of a tint.
“Actually,” added Greene in Spanish, “we’re here for a Christmas special. We want to give you a gift.”
The couples’ faces instantly changed expression from concern to gratitude as Greene and Thwing handed the Navarretes an envelope containing $100.
“Oh my God,” said Maribel Navarrete, tearing up. “Thank you so much.”
“I hope it helps,” Thwing told the couple, who were reporting to work at a customer’s home.
On Friday, Dec. 14, the deputies, joined by other colleagues, including Lt. Mike Peters, chief of police services for San Clemente, spent nearly three hours pulling people over to surprise them with cash.
The Secret Santa effort was part of the OCSD’s annual holiday partnership with Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) Orange County, which every year receives the money from an anonymous donor.
The non-profit TIP, whose 120-some trained volunteers in OC work with police, fire departments, and hospitals to provide emotional and practical support to people immediately after a tragedy, then leaves it up to the OCSD to find worthy recipients of the cash.
TIP and the OCSD wrapped up the Secret Santa campaign Friday, Dec. 14.
It began the week before.
On Dec. 14, TIP representatives came armed with envelopes containing a total of $1,300, leaving it up to the deputies to hand out $100 or $200 to people they pulled over, based on their need.
The TIP representatives included Deanna Fortin, wife of TIP founder and CEO Wayne Fortin; Mindy Daffron, TIP crisis team manager; and Marci Kylander, a TIP volunteer who gets dispatched on calls to help people.
“The deputies usually don’t want to do it,” Peters said. “But afterward, they’re like, ‘All right, lieutenant, that was cool.’”
Indeed, most of the 31,400-plus calls for service the OCSD responded to in San Clemente last year involved negative situations.
The Secret Santa program with TIP gives deputies a chance to enjoy some positive vibes with members of the public.
As Greene and Thwing drove around the city looking for prospects, they looked for a reason to pull someone over (for example, faulty brake lights) and ran license plates to make sure none of the cars had been reported stolen.
Then, when they felt they had a good prospect, they hit their lights.
“We like to hunt for bad guys,” Thwing said, “but this is a different type of hunting. We’re hunting for people who need help.”
All of the drivers pulled over initially wondered why they were being stopped.
Meredith Paschke, of San Clemente, was driving her blue Toyota Camry with her daughter, Colette, nearly 2, in the back.
She broke into tears when the deputies gave her $200.
“I’m a single mother, and this will help a lot,” Paschke said.
Marie Randall was pulled over for making a wide turn.
The widower, whose late husband, Howard James Randall, served in the Marines for more than 40 years, was lit up as she pulled into the parking lot of a bank.
“You scared me to death,” an appreciative Randall told Greene and Thwing after they copped to the real reason they pulled her over.
Randall, getting emotional, said she plans to donate the $100 to her church, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, which is located across the street from OCSD headquarters in San Clemente.
Greene and Thwing graduated together from the OCSD’s Training Academy in 2013.
Both said they loved participating in the Secret Santa campaign.
Kristianne Riddle, of San Clemente, driving a Toyota Highlander, loved being a recipient.
“Why me?” she asked the deputies after she got $100. “I will definitely pay it forward.”
Emelia Montes de Oca said she would share the $200 with her two co-workers who were on their way to their housecleaning job in Montes de Oca’s Astro van.
“God bless you all!” she told the deputies and TIP representatives.
Scott Tree, of Los Angeles, said he would use his $100 to buy two new pair of jeans. He was pulled over in the parking lot of the Outlets at San Clemente.
“You totally made my day,” Tree said.
Dayna Labelle, of Huntington Beach, is a dog trainer and dog walker who got pulled over heading to a client’s house.
“This is amazing – really great,” said Labelle, who said she will put the $200 she got toward a plane ticket to visit her mother in Nevada over the holidays.
The last recipient of the Secret Santa cash on Dec. 14 was Jeanna Bassett, the teacher at Concordia Elementary School whose classroom recently was vandalized. Vandals smashed her 30-year-old “Star Wars” Lego collection.
For Fortin, it was her first time participating in the Secret Santa campaign.
“I think everybody should have the experience of feeling what it’s like to make a difference in a person’s life.”
Editor’s note: Behind the Badge writer Greg Hardesty also is a TIP volunteer.