Vietnam vet lost his Purple Heart as thieves swept into the Oroville Dam evacuation zone

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Charles Satterlee was awarded his Purple Heart medal at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, Conn., Saturday, May 12, 2012. Satterlee received the award for injuries he sustained, and members of his family received the medal on his behalf.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Charles Satterlee was awarded his Purple Heart medal at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, Conn., Saturday, May 12, 2012. Satterlee received the award for injuries he sustained, and members of his family received the medal on his behalf. U.S. Coast Guard

Authorities are investigating a series of looting incidents in neighborhoods evacuated this week during the Oroville Dam crisis, with residents reporting the thefts of cash and credit cards. One Vietnam veteran had nearly two dozen military medals stolen from his Yuba City home.

At least six people have been detained so far in various incidents, and authorities say they still are investigating some reports.

Among the victims was Mike Pomeroy, 69, a Vietnam veteran who left his Yuba City home Sunday with his wife, Gaylene, after the evacuation was ordered, then returned to find he had lost nearly two dozen medals to thieves, including a Purple Heart.

“They were in a briefcase in the very depths of the closet,” said Gaylene Pomeroy, 64. “They were things that he had not opened in any many years. They were tucked away. He wanted to forget about them because he has PTSD.”

The medals’ theft “has put him in a tailspin, to put it mildly,” she added.

The couple fled their home Sunday along with 188,000 other residents of Sutter, Yuba and Butte counties when officials feared the dam’s emergency spillway might fail, sending a wall of water crashing over the Highway 70 corridor.

Looters apparently swept in after the communities were evacuated, giving them easy access to homes. Law enforcement officials are not classifying what followed as a wave of looting, because they define looting as stealing large numbers of goods from a single place, such as a store. But a Yuba County sheriff’s official said there was a noticeable uptick in burglaries during the day-and-a-half-long evacuation period, and Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said there were some cases being labeled as looting incidents.

Those who were given moments to leave their homes often left behind credit cards, cash and other valuables. The Pomeroys focused on getting their medicines and the items they would need for a stay away from home, Gaylene Pomeroy said.

“We packed our bags and got all of our medicines and we locked up the house,” she said.

The couple went to stay with family in Benicia, but later asked their son, who was in Yuba City to retrieve some items from his home, to check on their house while he was in town.

“The back gate was open and the front door was wide open, so he called the police right away,” she said. “They came and searched the house and it was pretty much thrashed. They had thrashed everything.”

Gaylene Pomeroy said she lost cash, jewelry, sapphire and diamond earrings and a diamond necklace.

“We actually don’t have an itemized list yet, it’s just been too emotional,” she said. “They took things that we could replace, but the medals were the most important.”

Pomeroy said her husband was a medic on a helicopter in Vietnam from 1968-69, and that he was a railroad worker for 42 years after that. The thieves also took his railroad pocket watches and pins, she said.

The thieves left behind the medal citations, so they can be replaced, she said, but it is not the same.

“They’re not the original medals that he received,” she said. “There’s no reason for them to have these medals, they’re worthless to them.”

Dante Atkins, a spokesman for Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said his office already has spoken with Mike Pomeroy and is working to expedite efforts to order replacement medals.

Additional burglaries took place elsewhere in the evacuation zone.

In Gridley on Monday, state Department of Water Resources workers spotted a man driving a quad that was pulling a trailer with a safe on its bed, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said.

The workers became suspicious and followed the man for a couple of miles until it became stuck on some railroad tracks and the driver ran off.

“During the investigation, deputies learned the quad, the trailer and safe, with firearms inside, were stolen from a home on the 500 block of Sheldon Avenue in Gridley while the homeowners were under the evacuation order,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Authorities later arrested Michael Matlock, 31, of Marysville on charges of first-degree burglary, vehicle theft and looting during an emergency.

A carjacking occurred on Sunday as an Oroville resident was trying to pack his car to leave, authorities said.

A man flagged down Butte County deputies and told them that he had his vehicle running as he packed it to evacuate. Two men jumped into the vehicle and drove off.

“The victim tried to stop the suspect but was deliberately run over in the process,” the sheriff’s office said. “The victim was flown by helicopter to a local hospital with serious injuries. The vehicle was located and recovered, and deputies are actively searching for the suspects.”

Also in Oroville, which sits just below the dam, sheriff’s deputies received a report of two men with a shotgun running from the Golden Feather Market.

“Witnesses stated that two males entered the business and began grabbing items, neighbors in the area confronted them and the suspects dropped the items and fled on foot,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

Another man was arrested in Marysville on burglary charges, according to the police department’s Facebook page and the Appeal-Democrat newspaper.

Two more suspects were detained in El Dorado County on Tuesday when a patrol deputy spotted a U-Haul truck with an attached trailer in a parking lot.

The deputy saw a man working on the towing equipment for the trailer and questioned him, then discovered there was an outstanding felony warrant for his arrest, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in federal court Thursday.

The man, Allen Hein, 42, had been indicted last week on mail theft and identity theft charges but failed to report in to pretrial services officials, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

After he was detained next to the rental truck, the deputy questioned a woman sitting in the truck, identified as Jessica Farias, and discovered she also was on searchable probation, the affidavit states.

The deputy then searched the cab of the truck and found 10 credit cards in the names of two burglary victims from Marysville who had evacuated because of the flood threat and returned to find property missing from their home, including an American Express card; a Golden 1 Visa; JC Penney, Target and Kohl’s credit cards; a black leather backpack; and a cellphone.

“Based on my investigation, I have learned that other individuals in the same neighborhood (as the victims) have reported that their homes were also burglarized during the same period,” U.S. Postal Inspector La’Keisha Alexander-Abram wrote in the affidavit.

Authorities determined that someone attempted to use the American Express card for a $439 purchase at a Home Depot and a $200 transaction at a Bank of America ATM, the affidavit states. The document also says that on Thursday officials “obtained good quality surveillance images which depict Hein” trying to use the victim’s card at a Marysville bank branch on Tuesday.

Other incidents were reported by the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, which recorded 12 residential burglaries and two attempted break-ins at businesses during the evacuation.

“I can tell you that’s higher than average,” said sheriff’s crime analyst Leslie Carbah.

So far, no arrests have been made in those cases.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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