FERNDALE - An alert tow-truck operator did what a two-hour manhunt involving police, dogs and a helicopter couldn't - find and trap a suspected car thief.
The chain of events began Tuesday morning, July 24, when a 20-year-old man ran to Curb Shots, 6018 Portal Way, claiming he'd escaped a kidnapper with a gun who had stolen his car.
The blue Hyundai was found at 11 a.m. - on fire in a field in the 1700 block of Trigg Road, north of Ferndale.
It appeared the car had overheated; it wasn't set aflame on purpose, Bellingham police Sgt. Dennis James said. Witnesses heard explosions and watched large plumes of smoke rise from the car.
"Whether he was just driving or crashed (in the field), I don't know," James said.
By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, the driver had run away. Witnesses pointed them toward Portal Way.
About an hour later, a man walked into Heston Hauling in Ferndale. He tried to explain: His brother's car had broken down in Bellingham, and he needed a ride.
Chris Heston, owner of the tow company, listened but grew suspicious. That morning, as he was getting coffee down the street, Heston had heard about the "kid" who ran to Curb Shots reporting a kidnap attempt and stolen car. A barista had let the victim use the phone to call police. He described the suspect as a tall, slender Hispanic man with a shaved head.
The man in Heston's office was in his early 30s, wearing a ratty T-shirt, basketball shorts and a bandana. He matched the description. But Heston said it was obvious, from the man's clothing, that a gun "wasn't there."
Outside, deputies had been scouring Portal Way for more than an hour, with help from a helicopter and police dogs.
Heston offered to take the man to Bellingham. But he also told his wife, discreetly, to call police.
Heston and the man got into the truck together. The passenger started complaining when they took one too many wrong turns. They got onto Interstate 5 and drove south. Heston rolled down the window to get some air.
"Meanwhile, he's getting more and more jittery," Heston said.
About 10 minutes into the drive, a swarm of police cruisers rolled up behind them, just south of the Slater Road exit. The man asked if they were getting pulled over, then seemed to surrender, Heston said. A team of officers with assault rifles ordered them both out of the car.
Police loaded Heston into a patrol car, as a formality, then released him.
"They treated me no differently than him, but that's understandable," Heston said.
His passenger, identified by police as Paul Lozano, 31, was booked into jail that afternoon on investigation of taking a vehicle without permission.
Details about the car theft have turned out to be "conflicting and convoluted," James said, so police continue to investigate.
Reach Caleb Hutton at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2276.