Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 7, 2008

Theater-burglary trail leads to U-Haul vans

Despite link, U-Haul officials have no record or recollection of contact with police

by Becky Trout

In two incidents last summer, traveler's checks stolen from the Palo Alto Children's Theatre were discovered in connection with one or more U-Haul trucks rented from an East Palo Alto market.

But police haven't questioned the market's owner or requested rental records from U-Haul's corporate office, according to the owner and a U-Haul spokeswoman.

Investigators working on the case were unavailable for confirmation by the Weekly's Thursday deadline and Chief Lynne Johnson is out of town this week, police Sgt. Sandra Brown said.

The first traveler's-check incident occurred last June 23, less than a week after a reported burglary of the theater <0-x2014> thefts that initiated an investigation that resulted in the theater's Jan. 24 closure, the placement of two-thirds of its small staff on administrative leave and community outrage over the handling of the investigation.

Before 8 a.m. that Saturday in June, Abraham Esquivias Torres of East Palo Alto and Maria de Jesus Diaz of Menlo Park, both 20, were spotted sitting in a U-Haul truck in the parking lot of a San Carlos Longs drug store, according to a police report obtained by the Weekly.

San Carlos police had received a tip minutes earlier that two persons matching their descriptions had attempted to use suspicious traveler's checks and perhaps a stolen credit card at another drug store, Walgreens, several blocks south on El Camino Real.

A search revealed that Torres had "a wad" of traveler's checks linked to the Children's Theatre burglary in his pocket. Torres and Diaz also used or attempted to use the checks at a grocery store in Redwood City that morning, police reported.

The couple allegedly purchased or attempted to purchase some Red Bull energy drink, sanitizer, three MP3 players, diapers and mascara with the checks or with an allegedly stolen credit card that was not found, according to the police report.

Two other Hispanic males, who a clerk told police had accompanied Torres and Diaz at Walgreens, left in a red vehicle before police were alerted and were not apprehended at Longs.

Officers found only a black bicycle in the rear of the U-Haul truck, which Torres said belonged to him. Police ran the bike's serial number to see if it had been stolen, but it had not.

After Torres and Diaz were arrested, they were questioned about the checks and the van.

Police reported Torres seemed disoriented, confused and tired, with slurred speech. He told an officer he had drunk two beers that morning.

Torres said he found the traveler's checks in a trash can outside the Chevron gas station on University Avenue in East Palo Alto on the afternoon of June 22.

He was at the gas station to purchase "swishers," a type of cigar that is commonly filled with marijuana. While rolling the smoke, Torres said he spotted the traveler's checks inside the trash receptacle and picked them up, although he didn't know what they were.

Torres told police he then went to a friend's house to "smoke some weed." The friend told him what traveler's checks were, and Torres said he decided to use them.

When asked if he had taken the checks from the Children's Theatre, Torres said he had "nothing to do" with the burglary.

Diaz independently told officers that Torres told her he had the checks. She thought it was unusual but did not ask where he got them because "it never crossed her mind," according to the report.

The next morning they successfully purchased items at Foods Co in Redwood City but aroused the suspicions of a Walgreens clerk when Torres attempted to purchase MP3 players with a credit card that was rejected and Diaz tried to buy cosmetics with traveler's checks with mismatched signatures.

When asked for identification, both Diaz and Torres left the store. The cashier followed them and took down their license-plate number.

By the time police spotted the couple, Diaz had already successfully purchased mascara from Longs using a $50 traveler's check.

Diaz and Torres initially told officers they had the U-Haul truck because they were moving to Modesto. After her arrest, Diaz admitted they were not moving to Modesto. She said she rented the truck on June 21 because "Torres was getting 'kicked out' of his house in East Palo Alto and needed help 'moving some things.'"

But they had not moved anything because they "didn't have time," Diaz told police.

According to the report, U-Haul told officers to lock the truck and someone would come pick it up.

Although the report only says the truck was rented in East Palo Alto, Amigo Market owner and former U-Haul dealer Ghalib Younef told the Weekly Wednesday he recalled having to pick up a vehicle that had been left in San Mateo or San Carlos last summer.

Amigo Market also figured in the second incident last summer in which Children's Theatre traveler's checks were reportedly discovered.

On Aug. 4, a man who rented a U-Haul truck from Amigo Market reported finding about $2,200 of traveler's checks from the theater in the back of the truck, according to a source. The market has since gone out of the U-Haul rental business and closed in mid-February. Younef told the Weekly he wanted to reopen as a cell-phone dealer.

Neither Palo Alto police nor East Palo Alto police were able to confirm the discovery of the checks, however.

Younef said he was never contacted by police in relation to either the June or August incidents.

U-Haul spokeswoman Joanne Fried said police had not made any inquiries regarding trucks rented from Amigo Market, which had been a U-Haul dealer since March 2005.

Last July, Diaz pleaded guilty and was convicted of misdemeanor charges of commercial burglary and unauthorized use of personal identification, Assistant San Mateo County District Attorney Karen Guidotti said.

She was sentenced to 20 days in jail and two years probation, Guidotti said.

Torres, now 21, is currently in the San Mateo County Jail in relation to three different alleged crimes, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said Wednesday.

He faces charges of violating probation, driving on a suspended license, commercial burglary, fraud and identity theft, driving while intoxicated, and providing false information to police, a spokesman said.

Torres has a pretrial hearing related to the June incident today (March 7) at 8:30 a.m., Guidotti said.

Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at btrout@paweekly.com. Additional reporting by Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Editor Jay Thorwaldson.

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