Kayla Anderson and Brian Brown, of Idyllwild, hug in front of their Jeep, recovered in Aguanga after a successful Facebook campaign to locate the vehicle. Photo by Paul White
Kayla Anderson and Brian Brown, of Idyllwild, hug in front of their Jeep, recovered in Aguanga after a successful Facebook campaign to locate the vehicle.
Photo by Paul White

A Jeep stolen in Idyllwild was recovered in Aguanga earlier this month with the help of social media and some watchful neighbors.

Brian Brown reported his 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee stolen from his Lower Pine Crest apartment on Sunday, Feb. 8, around 2 p.m., to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Brown thinks the Jeep was stolen between 1:30 and 5 a.m. but, Sunday being his and fiancé Kayla Anderson’s day off, he didn’t realize it was gone until that afternoon. The thief (or thieves) was determined, considering the vehicle was almost empty on gas.

“Whoever took it put it on a trailer or had a gas can,” Brown said.

Brown’s friend Paul White, who owns Idyllwild Bake Shop and Brew (where Anderson works) with wife Katie, hopped to action, posting photos of the Jeep on Facebook and asking for anyone with information to contact him.

“There were lots of shares from the community,” White said of the post. He was impressed by how many locals spread the word and helped it go “viral” — at least regionally.

His tactic worked. The following Tuesday, Feb. 10, he received a private message from an Aguanga man who said he noticed his neighbors painting a similar-looking Jeep on their property just as he saw the post online.

“It just shows how much people out here watch out for each other,” White said.

White got the location and told Brown, who headed out to see if he might be able to get his Jeep back.

He drove past the property, in the 47000 block of Buckhorn Road, and immediately recognized his Jeep, now painted a neon yellow-green and with some new dents and hollows to the driver’s side.

Officer Scott Van Gorder with the Sheriff’s Department’s auto-theft interdiction detail met Brown near the location. He drove with Brown to the property for visual confirmation before attempting a recovery. When Van Gorder returned to the property he found the gate locked, so he was forced to serve a search warrant. The process took four hours before Van Gorder and his team forced entry onto the property and into the home.

By then two helicopters were circling overhead.

Two people were detained, but were not considered suspects. After raiding the property, the officers also recovered a vintage Mustang — stolen that day — in the garage. They notified the owner, an Anza man, who had not yet even realized his car was gone.

Brown, who was allowed on the property to get his Jeep and look for any other property that belonged to him, said that just after the helicopters left the area, a red Honda CRX appeared from behind the home and raced off. An officer made chase, but was unable to find the car on Aguanga’s maze of dirt roads.

“The guy who owned the Mustang was yelling and cussing at the [Honda driver],” Brown said.

Brown, Anderson and White (who borrowed a trailer from local Jerry Johnson), loaded up the Jeep and brought it home that night. The Anza man drove his Mustang home. Brown was happy to have also recovered his pipe-bender, an important took for his trade, among the junk heaps piled up to conceal the Jeep.

The Jeep’s transmission is damaged, the 4-wheel-drive needs to be rebuilt, his license plates were swapped out and there is heavy damage to the driver’s side. Brown believes his workhorse, with extensive off-road modifications, was targeted as a “grunt” to steal other higher-value vehicles.

The Sheriff’s Department declined to make an official statement on the case because it is an ongoing investigation and the suspect is still at large, but did confirm the details of Brown’s story.

Lt. Paul Bennett with the Sheriff’s Special Investigations Bureau said the suspect is believed to be part of a large auto-theft ring that has stolen vehicles from Palm Desert to Temecula and everywhere in between.