When two young men walked into Jack's Pets in La Habra on Tuesday and agreed to sell four turtles for $25, owner Jack Dyer became suspicious. The creatures were rare African leopard tortoises worth at least $75 each, and Dyer said he knew exactly where they came from.
Dyer telephoned Rochelle (Shellie) Freid, Fullerton's unofficial "Turtle Lady," and asked her to check her menagerie of about 100 turtles to see if any were missing. Freid said that 17 of her African leopard tortoises were, indeed, missing from an 8-by-14-foot terrarium in her yard. She also couldn't find her tamed cockateel, an Australian parrot with a long tail and yellow head.
"I told her to get on the phone and call the police, right away," Dyer recalled. "And, boy, the Fullerton police really worked fast."
Arrested Three Hours Later
Less than three hours later, Joseph R. Soltero, 22, and Michael Kalmikov, 22, both of La Habra, were arrested shortly after they tried to sell three more of the rare creatures to Pet Haven, a store in Whittier. They were booked on suspicion of burglary and possession of stolen property and are being held in lieu of $25,000 each in the city jail.
Investigators then got a search warrant for Soltero's residence and found nine additional African leopard tortoises along with the cockateel that Freid had said was taken from her home.
Freid, who told investigators that the creatures are the only second-generation African leopard tortoises in the country, is pleased that the bird and 16 of the 17 stolen turtles were returned. But she still mourns the disappearance of the 17th.
"It was maybe three or four inches long, its left eye doesn't open as much as the right eye and its shell is yellow and black, like a leopard skin," Freid said. It's not difficult for Freid to distinguish between the turtles she keeps at her home on Hermosa Place.
"These are my kids," she said. "If you had 10 children, you wouldn't have difficulty distinguishing one from the other."
Freid said that caring for the turtles and about 100 birds is "the thing I'd rather do more than anything else in the world."
Fullerton Police Detective Dan Vincent said that the turtle caper is perhaps the oddest case he has handled in 10 years of police work. "This is definitely unusual," he said.
But much of the police work was accomplished by Dyer.
The suspect "couldn't tell me what (breed) he had, what they were feeding them," Dyer said. "They wanted to learn about turtles. They wanted to look at a book. They said they bought them for a dollar apiece from one of their buddies who was going to Oregon."
When the two left the shop and Freid told Dyer about her missing turtles, Dyer telephoned the owner of Pet Haven in Whittier. "It was just a hunch," Dyer said.
As the pet store owners talked on the phone, the two young men walked into the Whittier store. Pet Haven employees notified Whittier police, who held the suspects until Fullerton police arrived at the store at about 4 p.m. and arrested the pair.
Fullerton investigators said Freid's reputation as a breeder of rare birds and reptiles may have lured the thieves to her home. Freid has been active for several years in the Orange County Turtle and Tortoise Club, which provides treatment and serves as an adoption agency for abused and orphaned creatures.
Still, Vincent said, "I really don't think they knew what they were doing."