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Donors give, thieves take

Soldiers' family robbed of $8,000 in clothes and blankets intended for injured U.S. troops.

December 05, 2008|Jia-Rui Chong | Chong is a Times staff writer

The Ferraras had filled their motor home chest-deep with boxes of zip-up hoodies, underwear and eagle-emblazoned blankets -- a rolling trove of gifts intended for U.S. troops abroad.

But when Linda Ferrara checked on the RV, parked outside the family's bakery in Compton this weekend, she found a lot of empty boxes. A heartfelt note thanking the troops for their service was ripped into confetti.

Ferrara, whose son Matthew Ferrara was killed in Afghanistan, burst into tears.

Her husband, Mario Ferrara, who arrived about an hour later, wondered what they would tell MaryAnn Phillips, the military support group contact who was expecting the boxes at the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. And what would they tell the people who had donated clothes, tailored blankets and knitted beanies?

"Soldiers over there risk their lives with little or no thanks," Linda Ferrara, 58, said Thursday as the family gathered replacement items at their Bay Cities Italian Bakery. "These guys were stealing the little things we were doing to make them feel wanted."

As the sweet smell of bread wafted out of their low-slung bakery in an industrial part of Compton on Thursday, the Ferraras and their daughter, Simone Carmichael, busily answered a flood of e-mails offering help, spoke to camera crews and took orders for bread deliveries.

A neighbor dropped off two plastic bags filled with hundreds of T-shirts in the middle of the day. Phillips, a volunteer for the nonprofit group Soldiers' Angels at Landstuhl, had called from Munich.

She told Ferrara not to worry. Ferrara told her not to worry.

"I'm getting over the stress," she told Phillips. "We're going to get more stuff. We're going to make more blankets."

Ferrara, a slim, tireless woman who wears Matthew's dog tags or a beaded necklace with his picture every day, met Phillips in January. The Ferraras had stumbled upon Phillips' blog post describing a medical evacuation from a rugged mountainside in Afghanistan. It was the aftermath of an ambush that had killed Matthew instantly.

Matthew, a 24-year-old Army captain, never went to Landstuhl, where injured service members are taken from the battle zones, but Phillips told the Ferraras about men in Matthew's company who ended up there.

The Ferraras, who live in Torrance and have three other sons in the Army, try not to think about injuries that might send their sons to Landstuhl. But they wanted to do something.

Linda Ferrara saw on the blog that sweatpants, sweatshirts and socks were among the most popular items to help wounded soldiers get through the chilly German winters.

The Ferraras belong to the West Point Parents Club of Orange County, because Matthew and two of her other sons attended the military academy. Linda went to work with the group to collect donations. She and her friends also stitched together about 40 tasseled fleece blankets with patriotic themes to send as more personalized gifts.

They amassed more than $8,000 worth of clothes and blankets, and made plans to drive them to a Soldiers' Angels office in Newbury Park, in Ventura County, for shipping.

The Ferraras couldn't fit it all into a car, so they put the boxes in the family's 1989 Tioga motor home, which is usually parked in front of the bakery.

In the 15 years the Ferraras have worked there, no one has ever tampered with the RV or broken into the building, Mario Ferrara, 64, said. Then came the theft late Saturday night or Sunday morning.

"It's life," he said with a shrug. "Maybe they saw us loading it in."

According to Sgt. April Tardy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department station in Compton, the thieves made off with 308 pairs of socks, 231 T-shirts, 200 sweatshirts, 200 pairs of sweatpants, 103 pairs of boxer briefs, 48 washcloths, 45 hats, six handsewn blankets, three pairs of lounge pants and one scarf.

They also took a CD player and some DVDs, though they skipped a few of the clothing boxes and blankets, the Ferraras said. A box of romance and adventure novels was also untouched.

So far, Tardy said, there are no leads. A deputy returned to the bakery Thursday afternoon to follow up.

Phillips, who was reached in Germany on Thursday, said she was upset about the theft and the torn-up letter.

"It may only mean the thieves were young or something," she said. "I'm disturbed by what I see sometimes as a lack of respect for our service members."

She worried mostly about Linda Ferrara. Phillips hopes to help her replace the items and fly her out to Germany to distribute them.

"People put their loves and hopes into this," Phillips said. "It's not just stuff."

Checks to help replace the items can be written to the West Point Parents Club of Orange County and sent to the bakery at 1120 W. Mahalo Place, Compton, 90220

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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