A chubby guy in a red Pontiac Fiero drives into a Jiffy Lube.
Cesar Quintero can't believe his eyes.
The guy looks just like him.
The car looks just like his.
Of all the auto shops in all the world, this car has to come to the one in Canoga Park.
Quintero knows what he must do.
He is only 19 years old. But he doesn't lose his cool. He stays calm.
Being a prime suspect in a murder has prepared him for almost anything.
The guy gets out of the Fiero.
Quintero pops the hood. He changes the oil.
He also jots down the number on the license plate.
When the guy drives away, Quintero calls the cops in North Hollywood, homicide division. He gets Det. Ron Vega on the phone.
"Vega," he says, "you're not going to believe this."
I have heard many a wild Hollywood true story in my life, and even a North Hollywood story now and then.
Trust me, the Mother's Day Wienerschnitzel Murder is as crazy as any.
Vega has been on the force for 18 years. He has seen a lot. Maybe he thought he'd seen it all.
"What are the odds?" the detective asked me on the phone Thursday. "I mean, what are the odds of this particular car pulling into this particular place?"
I have him tell me the whole story. Jack Webb never told one better.
"On 5/10/98, at Laurel [Canyon Boulevard] and Magnolia [Boulevard], at the Der Wienerschnitzel restaurant," Vega says, "there was a fight.
"For lack of better terms, it was between Suspect 2 and Victim 2.
"Victim 1 jumps in to assist.
"Suspect 1 stabs him with a knife.
"The two suspects then jump into a two-door, red Pontiac Fiero and drive away. The two victims run to the corner of Laurel and Magnolia, where Victim 1 collapses. He is taken to Holy Cross Hospital, where he dies.
"Based on information from the co-victim, we know that the suspects drove a Fiero. It is a model that General Motors only made over 1984 to 1988.
"Utilizing our resources, we checked every registered vehicle of that make. We went through a volley of facts, until we found one individual who did mirror, in weight and height, the description we had of one of the suspects."
The detective and his partner drove to the suspect's Reseda residence. His partner is Det. Miguel "Mike" Quintero, no relation to Cesar.
There they noted Cesar's facial and physical similarity to IDs by four witnesses and a police artist's composite sketch. They found his car. They also found his cousin, Rogelio Galindo, 21.
Getting a search warrant, the cops confiscated knives from the house.
"Mr. Quintero's alibi," Vega said, "was that he spent Mother's Day at a backyard barbecue, and swimming in the pool."
It didn't look good for Cesar, except for one thing. The detectives felt they had the wrong man.
Vega likes to say 98% of police work is after the fact. The crime has long since happened. They need to rely on available evidence and witnesses.
Of this case, he says, "What are the odds all these people were wrong? But something told me and my partner that we didn't have the right suspects."
Cesar and his cousin cooperated totally. Every day for a month, they called the cops to ask: "Did you find the real guys yet?"
They even agreed to a lie detector test.
A week ago today, 72 hours before the scheduled polygraph exam, Cesar went to the Jiffy Lube to his job. In pulled a red Fiero. He called up Vega and said, "I just saw the guy in Canoga Park where I work."
Vega said, skeptically, "Yeah."
"He looks just like me!"
"Yeah," Cesar said. "This guy looks more like my brother than my brother does."
Same face. Same build. Same haircut. Same car. Cesar Quintero was amazed. So were the detectives when they traced the Fiero's license to an address in Panorama City, got a look at 20-year-old Edgar Adolfo Barrientos and arrested him on suspicion of murder.
Cesar is so relieved. So is Vega, who says, "It's been gut-wrenching. Hopefully, I'll have a normal stomach now."
I thought this story couldn't get any better. It could.
There was a $25,000 reward for information on the crime. It now could go to . . . Cesar Quintero.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.