Los Angeles Times

Not-so-blessed event

Scott and Kellee Seal had just returned home when they realized a bag was missing from their car.

The couple hadn't noticed at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, where they'd rushed earlier that evening thinking Kellee was about to give birth to their first child, a daughter.

It was Dec. 29, after all, the due date. But whatever the mom-to-be had been feeling proved to be a false alarm. Doctors sent the Seals home.

Once home, Scott couldn't find the diaper bag they'd packed with the baby's first outfit and other essentials. The car had been broken into at the hospital.

He called Newport Beach police, and the responding officer told him someone had used a tool to punch out a car door lock.

The bag packed for the baby was missing along with three iPads, a blow dryer and a pair of earrings that Scott had planned to give his wife.

The burglars had taken everything down to the baby clothes Kellee had shopped for and a gift for the new baby — a small, stuffed lamb.

"All of it gone. We just couldn't believe it," Scott said. "It couldn't have come at a worse time, or in a worse environment. At a hospital delivering your first baby? That's the lowest of lows, especially around the holidays."

In their report to police, the couple detailed about 30 missing items worth about $9,000.

Around 10:30 that night, Scott called police again.

As an officer had suggested, Scott had activated "Find My iPad," a mobile app from Apple that lets owners track their devices using GPS.

He saw one of the missing iPads ping briefly from an address in Alhambra.


A clue points north

Two days later, on the morning of New Year's Eve, Newport police Det. Tracy McKenzie called Scott to tell him police were about the check out his tip.

It was the first chance McKenzie and his partner, Det. Brandon Rodriguez, had to drive up to the Alhambra duplex where the digital map had pinpointed the iPad.

"We got the tip, and we just ran with it," McKenzie said. "It was a hot case, and we knew, 'OK, the iPads are pinging there now.'"

But he made sure to temper the Seals' expectations. There was a good chance the police wouldn't find anything. With just a ping, the detectives couldn't justify a search.

McKenzie wasn't even expecting to locate the thief. He had hoped at least to find someone who bought the stolen property off Craigslist.

About 7:30 a.m., the two detectives knocked on the Alhambra home's door.

A man and a woman answered. McKenzie and Rodriguez asked if the two occupants had recently purchased any iPads that could have been stolen.

The woman, Jessica Chavez, 24, said they don't even own an iPad before allowing the detectives inside, according to McKenzie.

"They invite us in," he said. "We go inside the house and we see iPads all over the place."

Around that time, the other person at the home, Ruven Gomez, 26, decided to "get the mail," police said.

Alhambra officers later picked him up in his pajamas, said Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella.

The detectives quickly matched three of the iPads' serial numbers to the ones taken from the Seals' car.

Evidence of possibly stolen devices was enough to give the detectives probable cause to search the rest of the Alhambra house.

As McKenzie and Rodriguez went from room to room, they found item after item from the Seals' list of stolen property, police later said.

Rodriguez kept in touch with the couple during the search, sending them cell-phone pictures to confirm that the items — luggage, a hairbrush, even Kellee's gym clothes — were theirs.

"Every phone call or text message was even better news," McKenzie said.

The detectives found almost everything that had been taken from the Seals' car, but

McKenzie remembered the diaper bag, packed with items for the couple's soon-to-arrive daughter. He wanted to find it.

"`We know you have it,'" McKenzie said he told Gomez that morning. "`Just tell us where we can find the baby bag.'"

With a hint from the suspect, the detectives pulled it out of a car trunk a few minutes later, McKenzie said.


An arrest follows

Newport police arrested Gomez and Chavez on suspicion of vehicle burglary and recovered a stack of iPads, luggage and other goods unrelated to the Seals' case.

Anything the detectives believed to be stolen was taken back to Newport Beach, where McKenzie and Rodriguez began tying them to other crimes, Manzella said.

Two of the iPads had phone numbers written inside their covers. Someone had tried to scratch them out, but McKenzie and Rodriguez were able to piece together partial numbers from each and come up with a complete phone number for their owner.

To find another victim, McKenzie opened a portable USB drive and sorted through documents until he stumbled across a resume with contact information.

So far, Newport Beach police say, they've found property connected to possible thefts in Manhattan Beach, Buena Park, Los Angeles and Orange.

They all seem to be holiday car burglaries that took place over a span of about 10 days, according to McKenzie.

It was such a tight string of crimes that the detective thinks the suspects were too busy committing burglaries to sell off the stolen merchandise, which he said was probably the only reason he and Rodriguez were able to recover most of it.

The most recent theft was at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

According to McKenzie, a couple from Laguna Beach drove up to see a Clippers game and their car was broken into late Dec. 30, the day before the detectives knocked on Gomez and Chavez's door.

"They were out burglarizing hours before we got there," McKenzie said.


What about those flip-flops?

Scott and Kellee have back about 99% of what was taken from their car.

"I think we're missing a pair of flip-flops," Manzella said.

Having their property returned "was a huge weight off our shoulders," Scott said.

Friday afternoon, the couple returned to Hoag with their diaper bag, expecting their daughter to be born in the next 10 or so hours.

"The delivery and a healthy baby is really the only thing we're focused on right now," Scott said Friday while he waited.

The next day, Saturday, Jan. 4, Madelyn Kate Seal arrived. Her parents wrapped her in the outfit Kellee bought that had been stolen just days earlier — washed first, of course.

"It was a perfect end to 2013 and perfect beginning to 2014," the new father said.

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