SF dad solves stolen luggage case for police – and the little cops still haven’t made any arrests

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Call it the stolen luggage case on a road trip. And call Tyler Sterkel, the victim in the case, the only person working to crack it.

An everyday dad turned amateur sleuth, Sterkel thought he presented the San Francisco Police Department with enough evidence to investigate and maybe even solve the case of who stole a trunk full of suitcases, backpacks and a car. beloved baby blanket from his car parked outside his Miraloma Park home as he packed for a trip on March 27.

He had a neighbor’s video of the van used in the crime on Marietta Drive. He found the same van. He found his family’s stolen belongings inside the van. He found evidence that the van itself had been stolen. He found burglary tools inside. And he found a host of other possessions that appeared to be stolen — 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 tackle San Francisco’s endemic property crimes.

This is just the latest example of petty cops ignoring crime and locals holding the bag. (In this case, literally. Sterkel saved his family’s luggage himself as the police stood there watching.) Yes, the police say they are understaffed, their morale has plummeted, and they does not trust District Attorney Chesa Boudin to prosecute. But they still have important work to do — and in too many circumstances they don’t.

“They’re just pointing fingers at each other,” Sterkel said of the police, the prosecutor and the rest of the criminal justice system. “It looks like a circular firing squad.”

Officer Robert Rueca, spokesman for the police department, confirmed the broad outlines of Sterkel’s account and said no arrests have been made in connection with the crime.

“This is an open investigation,” he said, asking anyone with information to contact police. But Sterkel had plenty of information and flagged down the police, and nothing came of it.

The saga began when Sterkel loaded up his family car for a road trip his wife and 10-year-old twins were taking to Palm Springs. Sterkel said he walked into his house for a minute or two, but in San Francisco that’s more than enough time for the treasures to disappear. And they did.

He returned to find three suitcases and two backpacks missing. Worse still, her children’s most beloved stuffed animals have been stolen. Worse still, her daughter’s baby blanket, which she had cherished all her life, was also missing.

Many jaded San Franciscans will grumble that he got what he deserved. He left the trunk of his car open and full of his things. But maybe we should strive for a city where baby blankets aren’t swept up in 30 seconds on quiet residential streets and where property thieves know there could be repercussions.

Molly Sterkel, Tyler’s wife, posted about the theft on social media site Nextdoor, asking neighbors to be on the lookout for stolen property and to see if their security cameras had captured the crime. A neighbor two doors down found footage. It showed only one vehicle driving on the quiet road for a few minutes after the theft: a gray van with a rolled-up carpet on the roof.

Molly Sterkel announced that thieves could steal her things, but not her vacation, and left with the children as planned. Two days later, Tyler Sterkel was driving around the neighborhood when he spotted the gray van with the carpet on the roof.

“Through a combination of alert and anger and good luck and the scammers being morons, I saw the car in my neighborhood,” he said. “The odds of that seemed nearly impossible.”

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

He struck up a conversation with the woman, showed her the neighbour’s footage of the crime on his phone, and described the theft. She said the van was not hers – that it belonged to her friend Wolf, and told a shady story about him sleeping in a nearby house. 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 the pit bull gone, he felt comfortable looking inside the windows and spotted many of his family’s belongings strewn around. He called 911 three times.

After about 30 minutes, officers arrived. Together, they discovered that the van doors were unlocked. The officers told Sterkel he could go back to his business, so he did.

Inside the van was what he called “a tweaker show,” filled with trash, break-in tools, documents, cameras and luggage. He said the car appeared stolen because its steering column was cracked and the wires were exposed.

After “rummaging through their chaos”, Sterkel retrieved many of his family’s belongings in full view of the officers, including the baby’s blanket. He left the crime scene in the loyal hands of the cops. Or so he thought.

Sterkel said he soon got a call from one of the officers, explaining that they hadn’t seized the van because it hadn’t been reported as stolen. And that instead of waiting for the woman and the wolf to return, they just left behind the van and the chaos inside. Sterkel then rushed to the site to find that the van was missing. It appears that the police made no effort to trace 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 spokesman, said different officers went to the personal address associated with the van’s registration “to get in touch with them, but without success”.

Sterkel continued to investigate. Do you remember the friendly woman sitting in the passenger seat of the van who gave him his first name and number? He used online search techniques to match that number to a woman with the same first name and a photo that looks like her. He then had the full name of the woman.

Do you remember the Lowell High report cards? These fell from family heirlooms he retrieved from the van. He matched the name on the ballots to a house in the Valley of Visitacion. Maybe this house was broken into too?

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

I ran the script in front of Boudin, who said the police should have put the vehicle under surveillance to see who was returning to it and made an arrest. He said it looked like “a range of different criminal charges” would be possible, including the original theft of Sterkel’s car, possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of stolen property.

He said he knew many officers worked hard.

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

The story wasn’t bad at all though. Sterkel’s wife and daughters were thrilled when he texted them saying he had collected many of their belongings, including the baby blanket, which he washed three times with “a special disinfectant for the stinky laundry”. And Molly Sterkel seems impressed with her husband.

“I don’t want to call my ordinary loving husband, but my ordinary husband is the furthest thing from Carmen Sandiego who steals things from thieves and returns them to their owners,” she laughed, referring to the master thief featured in video games and an animated television show.

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

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

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]: @hknightsf

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