San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Father solves thefts, but still no arrests

Police response lags after dad finds stolen items in van

- San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: hknight@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @hknightsf

Call it the Case of the Stolen Road Trip Luggage. And call Tyler Sterkel, the victim in the case, the sole person working to crack it. An everyday dad turned amateur sleuth, Sterkel thought he’d presented the San Francisco Police Department with enough evidence to investigat­e and maybe even solve the case of who swiped a trunk full of suitcases, backpacks and a beloved baby blanket from his car parked in front of his Miraloma Park home as he packed for a trip March 27. He had a neighbor’s video of the van used in the crime on Marietta Drive. He found that same van. He found his family’s stolen belongings inside the van. He found evidence the van itself was stolen. He found burglary tools inside it. And he found a fount of other goods that appeared stolen

Sterkel shows a photo he took of a van that he said contained items taken from his car, along with other stolen goods and burglary tools.

— suitcases, backpacks, cameras and even Lowell High report cards — in there too.

What he doesn’t find is any interest from the Police Department. What he also lacks is any faith in the city’s criminal justice system to address San Francisco’s rampant property crime.

It’s just the latest example of dolittle cops shrugging off crime and residents left holding the bag. (In this case, literally. Sterkel rescued his family’s swiped luggage himself as police stood there watching.) Yes, police say they’re understaff­ed, their morale has sunk, and they don’t

trust District Attorney Chesa Boudin to prosecute. But still, they have an important job to do — and in too many circumstan­ces, they’re not doing it.

“They just point fingers at each other,” Sterkel said of the police, the D.A. and the rest of the criminal justice system. “It seems like a circular firing squad.”

Officer Robert Rueca, a spokespers­on for the Police Department, confirmed the outlines of Sterkel’s account and said no arrest has been made in connection with the crime.

“This is an open investigat­ion,” he said, asking anyone with informatio­n to contact police. But Sterkel had plentiful informatio­n and beckoned police, and nothing came of it. The saga began when Sterkel loaded his family car for a road trip that his wife and twin 10-year-old children were taking to Palm Springs. Sterkel said he went into his house for a minute or two, but in San Francisco, that’s more than enough time for treasures to disappear. And they did.

He returned to find three suitcases and two backpacks gone. Worse, his children’s most beloved stuffed animals were swiped. Worse yet, his daughter’s baby blanket, which she’d prized her entire life, had also vanished.

Many jaded San Franciscan­s will snarl that he got what he deserved. He left the trunk of his car open and filled with belongings. But maybe we should strive for a city in which baby blankets aren’t swiped in 30 seconds on quiet residentia­l streets and property thieves know there just might be repercussi­ons.

Molly Sterkel, Tyler’s wife, posted about the theft on the social media site Nextdoor, asking neighbors to be on the lookout for the stolen belongings and to check whether their security cameras had captured the crime. One neighbor two doors down did find footage. It showed just one vehicle driving on the quiet road in the several minutes spanning the time of the theft: a gray minivan with a rolled-up rug on the roof.

Molly Sterkel announced that the thieves could steal her belongings, but not her vacation, and drove off with the kids as planned. Two days later, Tyler Sterkel was driving in the neighborho­od when he spotted the gray minivan with the rug on the roof.

“Through a combinatio­n of being alert and

Tyler Sterkel holds items recovered from a theft as he talks to his daughter Matilda in their kitchen.

angry and good luck and the crooks being morons, I saw the car in my neighborho­od,” he said. “The odds of that seemed almost impossible.”

He got out of his car and approached the van where he found a woman sitting in the passenger’s seat and a pit bull napping in the driver’s seat.

He struck up a conversati­on with the woman, showed her the neighbor’s crime footage on his phone, and described the theft. She said the van wasn’t hers — that it belonged to her friend Wolf, and relayed a fishy story about him being asleep inside a nearby home. She was chatty and gave Sterkel her first name and phone number.

Sterkel left and returned about an hour later to find the van empty. With the woman and pit bull gone, he felt comfortabl­e peering inside the windows and spotted many of his family’s belongings strewn around it. He called 911 three


After about 30 minutes, officers arrived. Together, they discovered the van’s doors were unlocked. The officers told Sterkel he could take his stuff back, so he did.

Inside the van was what he called “a tweaker s— show,” filled with garbage, burglary tools, documents, cameras and luggage. He said the car appeared stolen because its steering column was cracked open and the wires were exposed. After “rummaging through their chaos,” Sterkel recovered a lot of his family’s belongings as the officers looked on — including the baby blanket. He left the crime scene in the trusty hands of the cops. Or so he thought.

Sterkel said he soon got a call from one of the officers, explaining they didn’t impound the van because it hadn’t been reported stolen. And that instead of waiting for the woman and Wolf to return, they just left the van and the chaos inside behind. Sterkel then rushed back to the site only to find the van gone. It appeared that police made no effort to find the owners of the other items inside the van.

“I feel like I caught a thief and then they let him get away,” he said.

Rueca, the police spokespers­on, said different officers did go to the home address associated with the van’s registrati­on “to make contact with them but were unsuccessf­ul.”

Sterkel kept investigat­ing. Remember the friendly woman in the van’s passenger seat who gave him her first name and number? He used online research techniques to match that number to a woman with the same first name and a photo that looks like her. He then had the woman’s full name. Remember the Lowell High report cards? Those came tumbling out of the family items he collected from the van. He matched the name on the report cards to a house in Visitacion Valley. Maybe that house was burglarize­d too?

He found more video from a neighbor that showed the van continuing to case the area after cops left it. Sterkel wrote all his findings in a letter to the police. Nobody responded.

I ran the scenario past Boudin, who said police should have put the vehicle under surveillan­ce to see who returned to it and make an arrest. He said it sounded like “a range of different felony charges” would be possible, including the original theft from Sterkel’s car, possessing a stolen vehicle and possessing stolen property.

He said he knows many officers are working hard.

“And then, there are some cases like this one, where it’s really inexplicab­le,” he said.

The story wasn’t all bad, though. Sterkel’s wife and daughters were ecstatic when he texted them that he’d recovered many of their belongings — including the baby blanket, which he triplewash­ed with “special stinky laundry sanitizer stuff.” And Molly Sterkel seems impressed with her husband.

“I don’t want to call my loving husband ordinary, but my ordinary husband is the farthest thing from Carmen Sandiego stealing things back from thieves and returning them to their owners,” she said with a laugh, referring to the master thief featured in video games and an animated television show.

“Isn’t that what cops do?” she asked. “They catch crooks?”

In some places, yes. But in San Francisco, not often enough.

 ?? Photos by Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle ??
Photos by Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
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 ?? Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle ??
Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
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