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Orange County Focus

NEWPORT BEACH : No Trail, Odd Clues in Elephant Hunt

January 22, 1992|AJOWA N. IFATEYO

Police have no leads or witnesses in the theft of a 6-foot-tall, 1-ton teak elephant ripped from chains that anchored it to the brick pavement in front of a Thai restaurant.

Restaurant owner Sam Tila, 46, called Friday morning's theft "weird"--partly because a woman apparently called the restaurant's alarm service before daybreak that morning, identified herself as a police officer, "Badge No. 3," and reported that the elephant was broken.

Tila said Tuesday that an official from the American Alarm System then called him, at about 2:30 a.m. Friday, to pass along the report that the statue had been broken. But when Tila arrived for work about 9 a.m., he found his restaurant's trademark missing.

"It's crazy," an incredulous Tila said. "Who would take it and then call the alarm company?"

Police are investigating the call, along with the mystery of how a thief could make off with the sculpture.

"We're not 100% sure," Police Sgt. Andy Gonis said. "We don't normally give a badge number."

When police responded to Tila's call, they found no broken elephant but did find signs of the effort used to steal it. Several plants were overturned, and the planter that had been near the elephant was gashed, Gonis said. An emerald-green tile that was behind the object was also cracked.

Gonis said he believes that the thief or thieves backed a truck up to the restaurant and removed the elephant.

"It obviously took some manual labor to remove the elephant," he said. "If you had four or five good-size people, you could move it fairly quickly."

Nothing at the scene indicated that the chains had been sawed said Gonis, who added that the object could have been taken to be pawned.

"I guess there's a buyer for anything," Gonis said.

However, the elephant was probably taken more for a prank or as a collector's item, he said.

Elephants are a symbol for good luck in Thailand, Tila said.

"Way back, we used the elephant for the symbol of the country, just like Americans have the eagle," he said.

Tila, who paid $4,000 for the elephant 10 years ago, said teak is now rare. "You cannot dig up the wood anymore," he said.

Though Tila said the financial loss is painful, more difficult is the sentimental and public relations value of the piece.

"People, when they come here to have dinner, they touch it and say, 'Hi.' It's really sad," Tila said.

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