Fourteen hours after his Toyota pickup truck was stolen from in front of his Oceanside office last November, Gary Williams received an unexpected telephone call.
On the line was Santa Ana Police Officer Kevin DeDeaux with good news: Williams’ truck had been found and the two teen-agers who had taken it for a joy ride were in custody.
“It was amazing,” Williams said. “I thought it would be a one in a million chance that they would find my truck.”
As the county’s top recoverer of stolen vehicles in 1993, DeDeaux has made a habit of overcoming such odds and finding needles in the stolen car haystack.
Last year, he found 43 stolen vehicles and arrested 34 thieves, an accomplishment that led to his being honored this month as Orange County’s Vehicle Theft Officer of the Year by the California Highway Patrol and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
“Every cop has their specialty, and mine just happens to be looking for stolen cars,” DeDeaux said as he cruised Santa Ana’s Minnie Street neighborhood in his patrol car one day last week.
“People are real thankful when you find their cars for them,” he added. “It’s their personal property, they’ve worked hard and made payments and they usually have a lot of personal items inside. So, I get a real sense of satisfaction in finding them.”
A four-year member of the force, DeDeaux relies mostly on sharp instincts and an eye for clues that other officers might overlook.
“He has just acquired this knack for finding stolen vehicles,” said Sgt. Ed Andrade, DeDeaux’s supervisor. “It takes a lot of work. He’s one of the officers who goes beyond what’s required without asking.”
“A lot of it is just luck,” DeDeaux said. “On some days you’re real hot, and on others you can’t find anything no matter how hard you look.”
Most of the time, recovering stolen vehicles requires painstaking, tedious work. It involves cruising alleys and parking lots on the lookout for cars that are popular among thieves. DeDeaux said he checks for anything that looks suspicious: broken door locks, out-of-state license plates or nice cars parked in bad neighborhoods.
DeDeaux, 31, said he doesn’t have any special training in recovering stolen cars, but has learned invaluable tricks of the trade from his fellow officers.
“I learned a lot from more experienced officers,” DeDeaux said. “They are willing to help me and show me what to look for.”
Sometimes DeDeaux finds car thieves without really even looking. Once he casually glanced over at the car idling next to him at a stoplight and noticed that there were no keys in the ignition.
“I thought, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ ” he said.
On another occasion, three bank robbery suspects in a stolen car drove right past him.
“They looked at me, I looked at them,” he recalled. “I made a U-turn and began following them. The driver crashed the car and they all ran. We caught one guy hiding in a dog house, but the others got away.”
Then there was the time that DeDeaux casually pulled into the parking lot of a bank to withdraw some money from an automatic teller machine.
“I was on a lunch break and a guy gets out of his car and says, “Excuse me, officer, but is there a problem?’ He seemed real agitated and I thought, ‘This seems weird.’ So, I (checked) the plate and it came back stolen. I made an arrest.”
DeDeaux has heard every excuse in the book from thieves he has caught red-handed.
“Sometimes, they’ll pull over and try and be as calm as can be,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll try and say that their friend lent them the car and that they didn’t know it was stolen. You just know they’re lying.
“It’s also a real tip-off when a guy stares right at you, his eyes get the size of saucers, then he shoots around the corner and gives the impression that he wants to get away from you.”
While finding stolen vehicles might not seem as important as solving murders or cracking drug rings, DeDeaux said, “my idea is, if you get a stolen car, you might prevent a more serious crime from happening. Stolen cars are used in a lot of crimes like bank robberies, drive-by shootings and burglaries.”
DeDeaux said he can’t really explain why he has become so committed to reuniting stolen cars with their owners. But, he said it may have something to do with his love for vintage automobiles.
“I love cars,” he said. “I go to car shows all the time to look at older cars. Everything about them is so detailed, and yet they have a simplicity.”
DeDeaux spent six years in the Marine Corps and worked as a machinist in the aerospace industry before joining the police force four years ago.
A “family man” with a wife, Lanai and four children, he spends his off-days surfing and coaching his son’s baseball team.
DeDeaux, who was also recognized by the Santa Ana City Council this month for his 1993 record, said he finds the attention he’s been receiving for his efforts somewhat uncomfortable. He is quick to share credit for his success.
“It takes cooperation from citizens and colleagues to do what we do,” he said. “This is not a one-man crusade. Teamwork is where it’s at.”
But awards are nothing new to DeDeaux, who was named the Police Department’s rookie of the year in 1990. In 1992, he was honored at the city’s annual police employee recognition awards ceremony for saving the lives of two people, including a suspect who collapsed and stopped breathing from a heroin overdose.
“It feels good to get the recognition, but I’m just doing my job,” he said. “I’m doing what I like.”
But those who have had their vehicles recovered by DeDeaux are long on praise for him.
“He deserves every accolade you can give him,” said Gary Williams, the Oceanside man whose truck was gone only 14 hours. “I don’t know how he does it. I was lucky to get my truck back. If he hadn’t been such a good police officer, I would have been unlucky.”
Santa Ana resident Carlos Servantes, whose 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was stolen from in front of his apartment building last June, agrees.
“I didn’t expect him to find it so soon,” Servantes said. “I was thinking I would never see it again.”
Ironically, DeDeaux noticed Servantes’ car as he was recovering yet another stolen car--one of two occasions where he has found two vehicles in one day.
“I was giving a couple back their car and a car with four gang members drives by,” DeDeaux said. “As soon as they saw me, they accelerated. I got in my car, drove around the corner and there was the car, abandoned and still running.”
Vehicle Theft Targets
The most frequently stolen types of automobiles in Orange County in 1993:
* Oldsmobile Cutlass (1975-84 models)
* Toyota Corolla (1975-84)
* Toyota Celica (1975-84)
Trucks and vans
* Toyota pickup (1985-94)
* Chevrolet pickup (1985-94)
* Toyota van (1975-84)
* Honda (1985-94)
* Yamaha (1985-94)
* Suzuki (1984-94)
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR VEHICLE
Although an experienced, determined thief can steal just about any vehicle, you can make it difficult.
* Close windows, lock doors and take the keys; 13% of stolen vehicles have the keys in them.
* Don’t leave your car running while you go in to a store or back in to the house to refill your coffee cup.
* Park with front wheels turned sharply to the right or left and the emergency brake applied; 10% of stolen cars are towed away.
* Activate anti-theft devices. Steering wheel locks and alarms are good deterrents. Kill switches that shut down the fuel system can be installed by a mechanic and are quite effective. Tracking mechanisms that enable police to locate a vehicle are also effective but more expensive than other deterrents.
* Hide all packages and personal items. Left in the open, they invite theft.
* Use your garage; lock both the vehicle and the garage.
* Don’t park on outskirts of shopping, motel or other parking lots. Park near the entrance, especially if you will be leaving your car unattended for an extended period.
* Etch vehicle identification number in hard-to-find spots, using an engraver or dye marker.
Sources: Orange County Auto Theft Task Force; Santa Ana Police Officer Kevin DeDeaux; Researched by GREG HERNANDEZ / Los Angeles Times