On Feb. 28 at around 7:30 p.m., Edgar Ruiz was unloading the catering van for the business he owns with his wife — Epic Tacos — when, to his surprise, a man jumped into the driver’s seat and took off with the vehicle.
Ruiz called the police. They arrived minutes later, and spotted the car thief near Glenoaks Boulevard and Desmond Street in Pacoima. But he wasn't giving up, ramming a patrol car with the van and speeding away, with police in pursuit.
“He pulled into the driveway of a liquor store and tried to run us over,” remembered Sgt. Frank Alferez of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Foothill Division. “He came straight at us and takes off.”
The chase wound its way into Granada Hills. In the area of Pineridge Drive and Kenny Drive, near the Knollwood Golf Course, the suspect jumped out of the van and ran, disappearing into some trees on a residential property.
Officers searched the neighborhood with K-9 dogs. A little after 8:30 p.m., police caught the suspect.
Alferez said the suspect, Jorge Gutierrez — a reputed gang member with a criminal past — told the police when apprehended that “he wanted to go to Palmdale.”
“I was trying to make anything to get away from you guys,” Gutierrez told the police, according to Alferez.
The Ruiz recuperated their company van, one they use for catering parties. They also have a food truck.
“The bumpers were damaged. He hit three vehicles, plus a police vehicle," recalled Sandra Ruiz, co-owner of Epic Tacos.
The Ruiz family was lucky. But they also went through an experience all too common to Angelinos, who are at higher risk for auto thefts than anywhere else in the state.
According to the California Highway Patrol, 180,000 vehicles were stolen in California statewide in 2015, and 50 percent of all vehicles stolen were taken in Southern California.
And it’s not just cars. Vehicle theft includes motorcycles, trucks, SUVs, commercial trucks, recreational vehicles and trailers. The value of the loss to California residents is estimated to be at $1 billion.
Nationally, auto theft is also on the rise. The number of motor vehicle thefts topped 707,000 – a 3 percent bump from the previous year in 2016, according to a study recently published by LoJack, a tracking system that aids in the recovery of vehicles subject to theft. That’s equal to nearly 2,000 vehicles stolen each day, or a vehicle being stolen every 44 seconds.
LoJack’s eighth annual Vehicle Theft Recovery Report lists the Honda Civic as the most sought after vehicle for car thieves. But there's also SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe (5th on the list) and Cadillac Escalade (7th).
“This indicates that modern car thieves continue to have a broad range of interests and often target vehicles regardless of make or model,” the report stated.
The CHP also notes there’s no such thing as an unwanted car; even the oldest car on the road can be a target.
And, in the case of Epic Tacos, even catering trucks.
The Ruiz family — who grew up in Pacoima — was so thankful for the police response and getting their company van back, they decided to thank the officers the only way they saw fit — a free taco dinner at the Foothill Police Station.
Recently, they parked their food truck at the station yard and served their Epic Tacos with handmade tortillas to the hungry and humbled police.