Crooks steal Turlock man's car dreams

Garren Montes wanted to put his 1989 Ford Mustang into his prenuptial agreement: "You'll never ask me to sell my car," he planned to request.

Never mind that there was no wedding on the horizon. Montes just knew he wasn't willing to part with his royal blue Mustang, which he spent more than 100 hours and about $18,000 buying, restoring and customizing.

On Aug. 6, everything changed when Montes, 24, walked outside his Turlock home at 7:30 a.m.

"It just wasn't there," he said. "I thought, 'Somebody's playing a joke on me.' "

It was no joke, Montes realized, standing in the entryway to his home, his school bags around him.

For Montes, a Modesto Junior College student, the Mustang was more than a hobby. It was a goal that kept him going while he was stationed in Iraq as a military policeman. It was a way to spend time, tinkering and traveling, with his father, grandfather and friends. It was his "daily driver," but it also was, he said, a piece of his personality.

"I was kind of puzzled," said Montes, as he grappled that August day with the idea that his Mustang was gone. "I was thinking over everything that I'd done to the car, all the time I'd put into it, going, 'Wow, all that is gone.' "

426 thefts January-June

Turlock has the highest per capita auto theft rate in Stanislaus County, which led the nation in that category in three of the past four years. There were more than 61 automobiles stolen per 10,000 people in Turlock from January to June, accord-ing to data from the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force and the California Department of Finance.

"We spend a lot of time in Turlock," said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Rick Gilstrap, task force supervisor. He cites the city's growing population and what historically has been a "woefully understaffed" police force as some reasons for the number of thefts, 426 from January through June. Having a university in the city, said Gilstrap, also means there are more cars for thieves to steal.

Turlock has committed a police officer to the task force, said Gilstrap, adding that an officer "with a lot of intelligence about where the crooks are" will be a boon to the multiagency group. The city had a member on the task force before, said Turlock police spokesman Sgt. Steve Wil-liams, but had to remove him to serve in another unit. The start date for Turlock's task force officer has not been set.

Overall, the county saw a decrease in auto theft in 2006. There were 5,083 thefts last year, a 28 percent drop from the 7,071 thefts in 2005, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics. The county task force reported 4,838 thefts last year.

The task force's figures are slightly lower than NICB's, Gilstrap said, because of differen-ces in the formulas used to calculate auto theft rates. But the task force numbers are starting to creep up: So far this year, the county has had 8.7 percent more thefts than last year; Turlock is up 3.4 percent, about the same as Modesto.

Many thefts are crimes of opportunity, Gilstrap said: The thief spots a car with its engine running, doors unlocked. In seconds, the car is gone. It happens all the time, Gilstrap said, despite cautionary words from law enforcement.

Mustang likely taken at night

Montes didn't leave his car running or unlocked. He even had an alarm system installed after someone broke into his car. The night the Mustang was stolen, he never heard the alarm sound or the alarm's pager alert. After talking with auto experts, he thinks thieves probably clipped the siren, opened the door with a slim jim device, threw it into neutral and towed the car away after he went to sleep.

Montes bought the car in 2003 for $2,300. He mainly needed a way to drive to Washington state to reach his post at Fort Lewis. But when the transmission went out within two months, and Montes realized he'd have to put $2,000 more into the car, he decided to turn the Mustang into a project.

"It's going to look nice. It's going to be fast," he remembers thinking. "It was a big joke in the barracks, that I spent more time under my car and under the hood than driving it. It always seemed like it was broken, but it wasn't."

Montes, a 2001 Turlock High School graduate, remembers hanging out at the barracks with friends and a six-pack, working late into the night on the car, then working more the next day. He remembers a road trip to Las Vegas, drinking Red Bull and stopping for a few repairs along the way. And he remembers a trip his dad took to Washington in 2005.

"Oh, we're going to fix something," he thought when he learned his dad was coming. He went out and bought parts; they installed new rotors and brake pads during the visit.

Montes was deployed to Iraq before his time at Fort Lewis. He would buy car parts online and have them shipped home. Sometimes his dad would get the parts installed. Other times, the parts would be waiting for Montes when he arrived. Montes returned to Turlock in August 2006 after spending more than a year in South Korea. Learning about repairs as he went, the car helped him transition back into civilian life, said Montes, who enlisted in 2001 in the Army and was honorably discharged October 2006.

"It was part of my accomplishment," he said. "Coming home, the car was better than when I left."

By the time the car was stolen in August, Montes had overhauled the Mustang: a new paint job, new headlights and taillights, shocks and springs, wider tires, custom rims. There were larger repairs, too, when family and friends got into accidents in his car. For Montes, it just meant the project never had to end.

Most stolen cars are found

Most stolen automobiles, about 94 percent, eventually turn up, said auto theft task force supervisor Gilstrap.

As days become weeks, Montes admits he probably won't see his car again. He's coming to accept that he never got the car appraised for its full value, although he tried several times. But it's hard to admit the loss to strangers.

"Before the car was stolen, I was constantly approached by people asking about my car," Montes said. "People in nightclubs, they would say, 'You're that guy who drives the blue Mustang with the Fox body.' Even now that it's gone, people come up to me and tell me I have a really nice car, even though the vehicle I'm driving isn't that one. I was just at a restaurant and this guy was like, 'Hey, that's a sweet car you drive.' I didn't have the heart to tell him it was stolen."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.