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After Wild Ride, Theft Suspect Trips on Feet : Crime: A handcuffed man leads police on a seven-mile chase in their own patrol car. He later is captured, almost hidden under a pile of clothes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From two wheels to no wheels to four.

Juan Rodriguez stole them all Wednesday morning, police said, working his way up to one of their patrol cars.

The 31-year-old Pacoima resident first took a 10-speed bicycle parked in the side yard of a house in Sepulveda, officers said. Then he lifted a gasoline-powered weed cutter from a gardener’s truck parked three blocks away, they said. Finally, sitting handcuffed in a patrol car as officers interviewed the owner of the bike, he stole that too, said Los Angeles Police Sgt. David Johnson.

Thus began a seven-mile chase in the east San Fernando Valley that embroiled civilian onlookers, 20 officers and a helicopter--culminating in the crashing of the car and the discovery of Rodriguez hiding under a pile of clothes on a bed.

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It all started when two officers on patrol in Sepulveda about 8:40 a.m. noticed Rodriguez riding a bicycle. Several minutes later, they noted he had somehow acquired a weed cutter, Johnson said.

While officers questioned him, a gardener appeared who told them that the tool had been stolen from his truck, the sergeant said. And as police were arresting Rodriguez in connection with the theft, another man walked up and said the bike also had been stolen.

Handcuffing Rodriguez in the back seat of their patrol car, which had no barrier between the front and back seats, they drove to the house from which the bike allegedly had been taken. With the patrol car’s motor running, one officer walked to the front door to question the owner, Johnson said.

The other officer, a newcomer to the force, stayed beside the car. But when the rookie stepped away from the car to ask his partner how long the questioning would take, Johnson said, Rodriguez climbed into the front seat and drove away.

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“He claims he was driving with his hands behind his back,” contorting his body sideways, Johnson said.

“Maybe so.”

Followed by two motorists who had seen the squad car theft, Rodriguez drove onto the nearby San Diego Freeway. He continued onto the Simi Valley Freeway before getting off in Pacoima, where he crashed into a parked Toyota, jumped out and ran, Johnson said.

One of the motorists following him continued the chase on foot, while the other contacted police over the radio of the crashed squad car.

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At Van Nuys Boulevard, two other pedestrians joined the chase and the three tackled Rodriguez, but he wriggled away, Johnson said. About 20 officers and a police helicopter arrived. Construction workers perched atop a nearby structure told the officers that a handcuffed man had entered a nearby apartment building.

There, police found Rodriguez hiding under a pile of clothes on a bed, Johnson said.

“He forgot to cover up his feet,” the sergeant said. “His feet were sticking out.”

Rodriguez was jailed on suspicion of grand theft auto. The police car suffered minor damage to its front left side. The Toyota was totaled. And the officers were “kind of embarrassed,” Johnson said.

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A police spokeswoman said that it was not immediately clear how often patrol cars are stolen, but that she recalled only one other such incident in the past seven years.

Of the officer who stepped away from the car he was supposed to guard, Johnson said: “It’s probably safe to say that nobody will escape from him again.”


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