Youth Accused of Posing as Officer

Times Staff Writer

A confident voice fought through the static of the police radio. Using the law enforcement "Ten Code" for "I've arrived," the fresh-faced officer reported his position to a dispatcher, pulled up to a house in San Joaquin County last weekend and stepped out of his government-owned car.

Wearing a badge and a sweatshirt embroidered with the gold star of the Probation Department, his belt adorned with chemical mace and handcuffs, he explained to puzzled parents that authorities were rewarding troubled teenagers who have been making progress while on probation by taking them to a local amusement center.

It worked 11 times. The trouble was that the officer was really a 16-year-old burglar on probation, authorities said this week.

Playing a real game of "Catch Me if You Can," the boy apparently broke into the San Joaquin County Juvenile Probation Department in French Camp on Saturday, stole two government cars, posed as an officer and gathered 11 other teenagers for a two-day road trip near Modesto and Stockton, authorities said.

Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies found the teenagers Sunday morning, officials said, and took the boy into custody. The other teenagers were released to their parents.

The boy, who lives in Stockton and has not been identified because of his age, has been charged with burglary, two counts of auto theft and impersonating an officer, said Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Letras.

He was already on probation for second-degree burglary and this time he may be charged as an adult, officials said.

As for the boy's apparent dreams of being a real probation officer, "I would say that they probably went out the window with this caper," said Stanislaus County Sheriff's Lt. Jane Irwin.

Though the boy told investigators that he had entered the Probation Department by buying keys from a county official, authorities believe that he broke into the building through a window that had been left open, said San Joaquin County Assistant Chief Probation Officer Carolyn Contreras.

Inside, officials said, he stole everything he would need to play the role of a probation officer: a badge, a Probation Department sweatshirt, handcuffs, cellular phones and two sets of keys.

He drove to a 17-year-old girl's house in one of the cars and persuaded her to return to the probation office and drive the other car for which he had keys, Irwin said.

The two teenagers gathered 10 more youths under the guise of the trip to the Boomers amusement center in Modesto, which features miniature golf, go-carts and video games. The teenagers, all from San Joaquin County, ranged in age from 12 to 17.

"Several parents had expressed concern, and didn't believe him because he looked so young," Letras said. "He was able to convince them."

The teenagers were found after neighbors called deputies to complain that two cars were being driven recklessly.

The cars turned out to be the stolen government vehicles, and investigators say they suspect the teenagers were killing time waiting for Boomers to open.

Investigators remain divided over how many of the other teenagers knew the youth.

Some of them told authorities that they had been duped, just like their parents. Contreras said she is skeptical of those claims, and officials are considering whether charges will be pursued against any of the other teenagers.

"I have a hard time believing that someone would believe that he was a probation officer," Contreras said. "How he pulled this off, I'm not sure."

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