Don and Faith Klein were all smiles Sunday as they stood in front of their 1956 Chevy Bel Air and 1966 El Camino – parked in front of the California Highway Patrol Central Division office in Fresno.
The Kleins accepted their cars during a news conference a week and a half after they were stolen the night before Veterans Day from a barn on their acreage near Kerman. The theft was the subject of a column by The Bee’s Bill McEwen.
“We found two of our babies,” Faith Klein said.
The loss was sentimental. Don Klein, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, rebuilt the Bel Air for his wife and taught her to drive in it.
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Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the suspects stole the cars after cutting a lock off the barn where they were stored. Two people were arrested: Jennifer Carlton, 38, of San Joaquin and Thomas Cummings, 34, of Fresno.
Mims called it a crime of opportunity. Carlton and Cummings couldn’t see into the barn to know what was inside. They hit the jackpot.
“We don’t believe they were looking for classic cars specifically,” she said. “They were looking for something to steal.”
About 45,000 cars are stolen in Fresno County each year. About 90 percent are recovered.
The Fresno HEAT Team (Help Eliminate Auto Theft), a task force made up of deputies from the Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol officers, investigated. Mims said they went undercover, posing as people interested in buying the cars from the suspects to get them back.
Mims said the Bel Air was found in rural Fresno County and the El Camino was found in the Mayfair neighborhood in central Fresno. CHP officers washed the cars before giving them back to the Kleins to remove black fingerprint dust used during the investigation. Parked in front of the CHP office, the turquoise and white Bel Air and dark blue El Camino glistened under the midmorning sun.
Carlton and Cummings were booked into Fresno County Jail on three counts of vehicle theft and three counts of possession of stolen property. The third count of vehicle theft is for a stolen Honda they were driving when arrested.
Carlton also was charged with two counts of residential burglary. Cummings also was charged with violation of probation, residential burglary and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Mims said not many cars are recovered in the condition the Kleins’ were found. About 4,500 cars are stolen in Fresno County each year, and about 90 percent are recovered, CHP officer Johnny Fisher said.
Don Klein said the El Camino ignition was ripped apart. But he said he might have left the Bel Air keys on the floorboard.
He is considering moving the Bel Air to another property he owns in Clovis. He might start driving the El Camino daily. Eventually, the cars will be handed down to two of his grandsons.
Don Klein didn’t believe officers when they promised him they would find the cars. Sunday came as a sigh of relief.
“I’m glad for my grandkids,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of cars stolen in Fresno County at 45,000.