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Diamonds Were in the Rough, All Right

Plucked from an O.C. sewer, a ring set worth $26,700 is still unclaimed. The finder gets 15% if the auction goes through.

October 14, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to miss a ring set with almost 4 carats of sparkling diamonds. One plucked from a Dana Point sewer last year -- and with no owner in sight -- has caused a stir beyond its size.

"It's a huge rock," said 12-year-old Claire Hunstein, awestruck as she peered at the wedding band and engagement ring, soldered together and nestled in a glass case among strands of diamonds, necklaces with gumball-sized pearls and a miniature disco ball.

The highlight: a 2.68-carat round diamond on the engagement band.

The ring set was on display this week at a Dana Point jewelry store, the latest stop in a mystery tour that began when Milton Tobar found it in July 2004 while cleaning out manholes for the South Coast Water District.

After Tobar turned it in, the water district used sewage system diagrams to pin down the rings' possible origin to 29 condominiums in a gated Dana Point community. They sent letters to the condo owners, but no luck there.

Now officials have had the rings appraised at $26,700 and are displaying them at the Swiss Connection jewelry store, where bidding in a public auction will continue through Nov. 19.

"I'm a real big jewelry freak, so I can tell those are good diamonds," said Luella Townsend, 69, of Dana Point, who brought Claire, her granddaughter, to the store between lunch and the girl's ballet lesson. "But what's really exciting is how honest that young man was to turn it in after he found it."

Sparkling from their white gold setting, the diamonds provided water district officials -- and everyone else involved -- an unexpected opportunity to teach people about sewage systems.

People such as Safaa Henry, a lab assistant who learned Thursday that there was no way for her own lost ring set to travel from her Chino hospital to the sewage lines in Dana Point.

She lost her set almost two years ago and hustled to the Dana Point store when she learned the rings on display there were found about the same time.

"I really thought it was mine," said a dejected Henry, 35, shuffling in her scrubs back to her car. "I suppose now I can sleep better knowing that my ring isn't about to be auctioned off to someone else."

Henry wasn't alone in thinking the rings might be hers, said Linda Homscheid, a spokeswoman for the water district. She and the jewelry store owner have fielded dozens of calls this week from people trying to claim the set, including a woman in Oceanside.

"We take for granted that people will recognize that our sewer system has no link to the one in Oceanside," Homscheid said. "This has been a chance to educate people on the workings of the sewage lines."

The residents of the homes where the ring could have slipped down a sink drain or been flushed down a toilet received letters and phone calls soon after Tobar found the set, but none claimed ownership.

After writing the letters, district officials tried selling the ring on the online auction site EBay. But it drew just one bid, for $3,051.99, far below the minimum price the district had set, and remained unsold.

Publicizing the current auction is also an attempt to reunite the set with its owner. Tobar, 36, said he hoped the owner hears about the auction and comes forward, even though if it's sold, he stands to collect 15% of the rings' auctioned price as a reward for his honesty.

He still marvels that he even saw the diamonds during the routine manhole cleaning, sparkling on top of a basket of grit.

"If it had been in the middle, I never would have seen it and it would have been gone forever," Tobar said.

He thought it looked expensive but never imagined its value. If the owner doesn't step forward and the auction goes through, he plans to use his reward money to visit his father in El Salvador, whom he has not been able to visit since he left 15 years ago.

The minimum bid for the ring set is $12,000, and five people have submitted bids this week. The bids -- four from men and one from a couple -- are written on cards and sealed in an envelope, to be opened when the auction ends. The highest bidder will get the ring, and the proceeds, minus Tobar's share, will go to the water district's general fund.

"Part of me wishes the man who found it could get all the money," confided Townsend, at the store with her granddaughter. "He deserves it."

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