Theater-burglary trail leads to U-Haul vans

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

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 -- 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.

• Archive: Children's Theatre investigation


Like this comment
Posted by Smells Fishy in Palo Alto
a resident of University South
on Mar 7, 2008 at 8:56 am

If PAPD knew back in June that this EPA couple tried to cash the checks why didnt they invesigate the UHaul records?

Why wait 6 months and shut down the theater in front of the kids and put Pat and Mike on leave? I'm not seeing the connection between the stolen checks and exhaustively investigating old costume sales months later.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2008 at 10:04 am

So they'll go all the way to Texas and can't interview people right in the area?

Do we need any more proof that the Palo Alto Police Department has completely bungled this investigation?


Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 7, 2008 at 1:05 pm

I'm glad to see the time line of the events in the Weekly article. After Miranda discovered the missing tripod on July 7, an immediate inventory should have been done by the Children's Theater staff. But it wasn't until Oct. 4 that more equipment was discovered to be missing. Was an inventory performed at that time? Also I'm puzzled at the lack of staff responsibility in accounting for issued checks at least monthly.

It is not the responsibility of either the City Manager's office or the police to manage the Theatre's operation. They can only respond to events reported by the Theatre staff.

Because of city mandated budget cuts, the police have been operating with reduced staff. Sgt. Yore has done an outstanding job in investigating this and several other crimes at the same time.

Like this comment
Posted by maria
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 7, 2008 at 2:20 pm

This whole thing has a very bad smell about it. Seems like the police have gone WAY off the rails with this. Yore has not done an outstanding job. He's ruined the reputations of upstanding citizens. He should be drummed off the force - along with his supervisors who allowed this to go so far.

Like this comment
Posted by CrocHunter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 8, 2008 at 1:24 am

Now that's what I call a rambling article.

Like this comment
Posted by a guy with a perspective
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2008 at 4:43 am

Bill. You seem to place all the blame on the theatre, and excuse any police misconduct based on budget cuts and reduced staffing. The theatre is also running on reduced staff, and has been for some time now. Back in June/July the theatre was in the midst of its summer schedule, building, teching and producing 10 shows in 10 weeks, please forgive us if we didn't have time to do a complete inventory until October when the theatre weren't painting sets until 30 minutes before curtain. the inventory took over a week to do, we did have that kind of time, we would have missed two show builds and ruined the summer experience of hundreds of kids.
I'm not saying that the police have mishandled the investigation, nor that the theatre employees are innocent (though I firmly believe in their character and their innocence). What I am saying is that all people ought to grant both sides, the police AND the theatre employees, the assumption that all persons involved were/are acting in good faith until any mismanagement, criminal activity and/or professional misconduct can be proven.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2008 at 8:12 am

Guy. It's not a question of assigning blame at this time. But I note that some bloggers make statements without knowing the background. And opinions, not facts, only muddy the waters.

In your first sentence you said "excuse any police misconduct". Can you confirm any police misconduct?

In the City Auditor's annual publication "Service Efforts and Accomplishments" Report 2006-07, page 58, note that police staffing has been reduced from 97 sworn officers to 93. I hear the City's Finance Committee may consider another cut for the next budget year.

Like this comment
Posted by guy
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Bill - If you read my whole post you would have read "I'm not saying that the police have mishandled the investigation", and I'm not because I can''t prove they have. What I was saying is that budget cuts have affected all parties, and I will repeat what I said: "All people ought to grant both sides, the police AND the theatre employees, the assumption that all persons involved were/are acting in good faith until any mismanagement, criminal activity and/or professional misconduct can be proven" either on the part of the police or the theatre employees.
On a separate semantic front, saying "any misconduct" does not allege any misconduct, it merely lays out a hypothetical. And I stand by that post, while you believe the police have handled the investigation properly, and I have no reason to dispute that claim, if there were any misconduct, it appears to me from your post that you would excuse it due to the budget cuts that have been placed on the city's police department, if I am wrong, please clarify your views.
Thirdly, while I can't be sure, I'd bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that I am far more aware of the totality of facts concerning the break-in, the theatre's response and theatre operations in general than you are, I don't speak without knowing facts, and the main point of my post was to say that we should assume all people are innocent until proven guilty, police and suspects alike.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Thank you, Guy. Statements should not be made that could be misconstrued. In any investigation many people get questioned. This does not mean they are guilty or the investigators are doing something wrong.

Your last sentence goes to the heart of the matter in every case: "...we should assume all people are innocent until proven guilty...".

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