It was one of the finest raids in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station.
In January 2010, the sheriff's LoJack vehicle-recovery system located a Bobcat that had been stolen from a cemetery in the Valley. The alert led them deep into the hills north of Castaic — where they stumbled across a junkyard jackpot of trailers, tractors, construction equipment, motor homes, boats, cargo containers and more.
The department's Taskforce for Regional Auto-theft Prevention (TRAP) team swooped in for a mass confiscation of what they estimated to be $1 million in mostly stolen goods. But today, almost two years later…
… an attorney representing the 13 SoCal residents and three Vegas residents who claim ownership of the seized items puts that estimate at more like $7 million. The containers, he says, held millions more in jewelry, art and other valuables.
At the time of the overnight raid, officials from both the LoJack vehicle-recovery company and the Sheriff's Department were bursting with pride:
“This is a substantial discovery when LoJack officials are calling it one of the largest in their history,” Sheriff's Captain Anthony La Berge told KHTS radio. “I am proud of our patrol deputies and their daily proactive efforts to keep our community safe.”
And in the local Santa Clarita Valley Signal, Sergeant Darren Harris said, “Hopefully we'll be able to get some suspects behind this into custody and ultimately hold them accountable for these crimes. They victimized many people over the course of many, many years … (it) is something that should not go unchallenged.”
(We've contacted Sergeant Harris this morning for comment.)
According to the new lawsuit, though, the 16 individuals who had been storing these items on the remote lot — which they rather euphemistically call “Paradise Ranch Property” — immediately came forward and demanded their things back.
The land, they say, is owned by members of the Prentice family, who have long used it to store their valuables and those of their friends, including many vehicles purchased at auctions and swap meets for a “salvage business.” (Could explain some of the sketchy plates.) And the stolen Bobcat — the one located through LoJack — was abandoned on Paradise Ranch by a cemetery employee who had run out of gas, the plaintiffs claim.
Kind of a creepy “Hoarders” scene, yes, but not necessarily a criminal ring, as sheriff's officials originally made it out to be.
Lawyer Richard Gibson says the new lawsuit asks for “either the return of the seized property or monetary compensation for its loss.”
He says his clients have endured hell in trying to get their stuff back:
“For more than a year, the Sheriff's Department did not file any criminal charges, but also refused to return the property. Plaintiffs who many times asked for their property back were told they would face criminal charges if they kept asking. The department followed up on its threat, with the district attorney filing charges against one individual after he made a motion in state court in January asking that his property be returned. The district attorney has said a number of times the charges will be dropped if the plaintiffs agree to stop asking for their property back.”
Here's what we really want to know. Where in the world is the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff storing this $7 million junk trove of seemingly epic proportions? Not exactly the kind of thing you can keep under a tarp out back the station.