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Driven to Trouble : Idling Firetruck Is Moved by Man, Who Then Is Arrested

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Garry Campbell says he was NOT trying to steal that bright yellow Ventura County fire engine in front of his house just after midnight Tuesday in Thousand Oaks.

He just wanted to move it because its idling motor was keeping his four children awake, he said.

As Campbell threatened Tuesday to sue the Sheriff’s Department for falsely accusing him of vehicle theft, authorities argued that his drive of less than 100 yards in the county’s fire engine endangered the life of a heart-attack victim.

And it could cost Campbell up to a year in jail if he is convicted of interfering with an emergency crew, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Detective Dave Ehrlich.

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There are two versions of what happened.

Both begin with the same scenario: 50-year-old real estate consultant meets late-model, chrome-yellow fire engine.

By all accounts, the crew from Ventura County Fire Co. 31 pulled up in the 4200 block of Palomino Circle and parked in front of Campbell’s house just after midnight, leaving the truck in neutral with the motor on.

“Someone left a firetruck in front of my house with the engine running and no one around,” Campbell said angrily. “It felt like an earthquake.”

After 10 or 15 minutes of rumbling, Campbell said, he called 911, thinking the truck might have been stolen and abandoned.

Then he went outside.

Seeing no one, he climbed into the engine, put it in gear and drove it down the block. He hopped out and walked back up the street, he said.

On the way home, he saw someone climb into the truck and back it up toward his house again, Campbell said, “And I tried to wave at them to say something to please don’t park it in front of my house, but they ignored me.”

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Moments later, sheriff’s deputies arrived and arrested him, he said.

“It was a stupid thing to do,” Campbell admitted. “But I just wanted to get the noise away from the house so my kids (ages 12 to 23) could go back to sleep. They had to get up early and go back to school.”

Company 31 Engineer Doug Beving tells a different story.

The company had examined Campbell’s neighbor for heart trouble and was ready to load the man into a waiting ambulance when Beving walked outside to fetch the gurney, he said.

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“I heard the engine revving up, I went inside and I wasn’t counting noses so I didn’t know we were all in there. And then someone said, ‘Somebody else is driving the engine off!’ ” recalled Beving, a 20-year veteran firefighter. “I went out, and he’d already driven it around the cul-de-sac and was heading down the street.”

Its air brakes still engaged, the truck was moving slowly, Beving said. So he ran after it and caught up just as it stopped at the intersection of Valley Springs Drive.

“I didn’t know who was in it at the time, I just made up my mind that whoever was in it has gotta come out,” Beving said. “I grabbed the door and pulled him out and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and he comes back with ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ ”

Beving climbed back into the truck and prepared to back it up to the heart attack victim’s house, he said, but Campbell ran around to the passenger side and tried to climb in.

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Beving said he stomped on the brakes twice, hoping the truck’s momentum would slam the passenger door shut before Campbell could get in. Finally, he said, he pushed a panic button that automatically radioed sheriff’s deputies to signal that a firefighter was in trouble.

“It was strange behavior, I didn’t know what to think,” Beving said. “We’ve got one of the newest engines in the county, and I didn’t want to see it disappear on us.”

Told this version of the incident, Campbell replied, “Interesting story. . . . It’s just absolutely untrue.”

No matter what happened, said Detective Ehrlich, Campbell had no business moving the county fire engine.

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Ehrlich said he plans to ask the district attorney to charge Campbell with interfering with an emergency crew, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail. And maybe joy-riding, too, he said.

“There’s a hell of a lot more social impact than the loss of an engine or the embarrassment of (the firefighter),” said Ehrlich. “There was a man’s life up at the end of the cul-de-sac on the line, too, and Mr. Campbell doesn’t care because his kids have to sleep.”

Ehrlich added, “Have him explain that his behavior was OK to the heart attack victim . . . next door.”

“It didn’t happen like they said it did,” Campbell said. “I’m going to have my lawyer call the sheriffs. I’m going to sue them all for defamation of character.”

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The heart-attack victim, Beving said, was driven to Westlake Medical Center by ambulance. The fire engine was returned, safe and sound, to Company 31’s station.


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