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Crew does its best for owners of 'orphaned' items on O.C. buses

Nonprofit group tries to return things to those who lost them, but sells them after 90 days.

December 10, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Inside an Anaheim warehouse, Ronnie Hughes takes inventory: 134 bikes. Check. Four dozen prescription eyeglasses. Check. Seventy cellphones. Check.

This isn't some thrift store Hughes is stocking. It's the lost-and-found bin for the Orange County Transportation Authority, the last stop for the many personal items left behind on county buses.

"We find everything from marijuana to drugs, and in between, guns, bullets, liquor and, uh, even sex toys," she said. "We even got a change purse with $700 in cash inside."

And the flow shows no sign of abating.

Hughes works for Orange County ARC, a nonprofit organization that provides services to the developmentally disabled. The group contracts with OCTA to provide lost-and-found services for about $65,000 a year.

Under the contract, ARC sorts, records and stores the items for OCTA. Items must be kept 90 days. ARC tries to reach owners either by postcard or telephone if their identity is known.

Otherwise, most of the items are sold at auction by ARC with the proceeds going to ARC's programs or to other charities.

"If we get identification from a lost item, like a wallet, passport or a Social Security card, we send a postcard to the address," she said.

After 90 days, unclaimed items with personal information are destroyed. The rest of the stuff, as long as it's legal, is sold.

The nonprofit organization averages 78 bicycles a month. After 90 days, the bikes are sold at auction with the proceeds, about $2,500 a year, going back into services for the developmentally disabled, Hughes said. Unclaimed cellphones are sold to a Florida nonprofit group that recycles them for homeless families.

Experience has taught them that backpacks can hold guns and illegal drugs. "We put on no-cut gloves for protection when we look into those things," Hughes said.

If weapons or contraband are found, they are turned over to police, she said.

Other transit agencies like the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have turned up odd discoveries, Rick Jager, an MTA spokesman said. Once, a human skeleton was found on a bus.

At times, Hughes and Andy Olivares, an Orange County ARC operations manager, come across items that puzzle them and fall into what they call the "oddball category."

"Why would someone get on a bus with a cane or a walker but forget to take it?" Hughes asked. "Or a wheelchair?"

People can easily get distracted, at least temporarily, and leave something of value, said Calvin Morrill, a UC Irvine sociology professor who co-wrote "Together Alone," a book that explored how social interactions can absorb people's attention.

"How could one be so distracted to leave a purse with $700?" Morrill said. "Well, they're in a public place, but the bus ride may be done every day and it's habitual. We're kind of in our own world and not really as conscious as in other situations."

Morrill said another reason is that people get absorbed in conversation with someone they see regularly, like people who take the same bus or train every day. He recalled that after the Metrolink train crash in Glendale two years ago, passengers could cite stories of one another's children and family events but didn't know the last names of their train buddies.

"You get absorbed in conversation and distracted enough to forget your belongings," he said.

For Hughes and Olivares, reuniting someone with what they left on a bus often requires detective work.

A plastic notebook that turned up one day had on its first page a man's birth certificate, followed by his World War II military discharge papers and family photographs.

"It dawned on me that here was a person's lifelong keepsakes," Hughes said. "We couldn't throw it away."

An envelope in the notebook bore a name that proved to be the last name as the notebook's owner. Hughes dialed information, got a phone number and reached a man who said he was the owner's brother.

"He told me his brother had been hospitalized but was anxious about losing his important records," Hughes said.

A few days later, the owner ambled in with the help of a walker.

"He was so thankful," she said. "I told him, 'Don't take this out of your home next time. It's too valuable.' "

One day Hughes and Olivares were confronted with a boxlike piece of machinery. They didn't know what it was, let alone its owner. They saw a piece of paper taped to the side with a name and phone number on it. They called and left a message.

A few days later, a woman returned the call. She said the box belonged to her nephew who had been in a car crash. He needed the machine as part of his therapy to stimulate his leg muscles. He didn't know where he had left it, she said.

"Then she told us it was worth $5,000," Hughes said. "We looked at each other and couldn't believe it."

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