It was after 1 a.m. Wednesday when an Orange County sheriff's deputy first spotted someone driving recklessly down Del Obispo Street. The deputy figured the driver was drunk, and after he failed to yield, a pursuit through San Juan Capistrano began.
As the car headed about four miles southwest into Dana Point, another deputy joined the pursuit, chasing the Chevy Aveo until it crashed into a tree in the center median of Dana Point Harbor Drive.
The driver managed to bail from the car and run toward the water, just as the Aveo went up in flames. Deputies had to search for the driver for about five minutes, and by 1:30 a.m. they found their man hiding in the bushes near a boat dock.
Their man, it turned out, was a 12-year-old boy.
"He's very fortunate that he wasn't injured," said Lt. Joe Balicki of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "There's a whole bunch of things that could have gone wrong."
The boy, who was not identified by authorities, was returned to his parents, Balicki said. The case will be referred to the Orange County district attorney's office, but it was unknown Wednesday night if charges would be filed against the juvenile. The car belonged to his parents, but the boy's motive for taking it wasn't clear, Balicki said.
Meanwhile, the Aveo was declared a total loss at the scene, said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion of the Orange County Fire Authority. One fire engine with three firefighters quickly put out the fire, Concepcion said.
"Pursuits are dangerous," Balicki said, "especially when you're chasing somebody who's never driven a car before."