Rowland Iyinbor’s fiancée parked his black Chevy Tahoe in the Clackamas Town Center lot and headed inside to return some clothes. When she came out about 20 minutes later, the SUV was gone.
Within about two days, Portland police called Iyinbor and told him it had been found in Lents Park. But the news wasn’t all good.
The 2006 Tahoe would have to be towed. It was resting on cinder blocks, the tires, wheels, brake drums and rotors missing. The car stereo was cut out of the dashboard.
“It was totally stripped,” Iyinbor recalled. “When I say stripped, it was totally naked. Everything was gone.’’
The SUV was among more than 100 cars that police say Israel Fonseca gutted on the spot or stole and ransacked before abandoning them on streets in Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion and Clark counties.
Shoppers, basketball fans, concert attendees and moviegoers would emerge to find their cars gone or jacked up on cinderblocks. He hit cars outside the Moda Center, Lloyd Center, and even a hospital’s emergency department, police said.
He knew how to disable car alarms to avoid detection. He’d swipe everything from GPS navigation systems to guns hidden in glove boxes. Once he stole a service dog from a truck, police said.
In a region rife with car theft and stolen car parts, Fonseca was in a class by himself, prosecutors said.
Not only was he prolific, Fonseca had help.
His girlfriend, Valarie Cai Applegate worked for Oregon’s DMV at the Mall 205 office and fed Fonseca inside information.
Fonseca would collect license plate numbers and vehicle identification numbers on cars that caught his eye. Applegate would then look up the driver information and pass it along to Fonseca, police and prosecutors said.
Fonseca would sometimes use the details, authorities said, to follow the cars from their homes to malls or wherever he knew the owners would be occupied for at least an hour or two. Then he got down to business.
Fonseca and Applegate, both of Clackamas, had met on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games. They became romantically involved and have a 2 ½-year-old child together.
On May 18, Fonseca, 39, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He also had his driver’s license revoked for life.
He pleaded guilty to more than three dozen charges as part of a deal that largely spared Applegate from jail time, in part because of a change in the state’s search-and-seizure law.
Police said Fonseca’s scheme with Applegate lasted from at least 2017 to 2019 before his arrest.
Applegate, 40, was fired from her job in September 2020 after working for the DMV for 10 years and three months.
Prosecutors said she also accepted gift cards and money from Fonseca’s friends to help them get permits or licenses or jump the line for quicker service.
She pleaded guilty last week to receiving bribes and other charges and was sentenced to one night in jail and three years of probation. She also must complete 160 hours of community service.
“I am immensely apologetic,” Applegate told the judge as she wiped away tears.
‘MY HEART SUNK’
Chevy Tahoes, GMC and Cadillac trucks, Jeeps and SUVs with custom or aftermarket wheels were Fonseca favorites, court records show.
He would regularly rent a pickup, from either the rental company where he worked or others, and use it in his crimes, police and prosecutors said.
He would typically pull up alongside a targeted vehicle in a parking lot and remove tires and rims one by one with lightening speed, using a car jack, electric power tool and screwdrivers.
He often sold the stolen car parts and other valuables through the online marketplace OfferUp, investigators said.
He finally got caught after a monthslong investigation that began, police said, after people started reporting their pickups or SUVS broken into or stolen from near the Moda Center and Lloyd Center.
Meanwhile, Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies were receiving numerous car theft reports from the lot of Clackamas Town Center and surrounding business district.
Police in both counties set up missions to try to catch the car prowlers in the act.
On Feb. 7, 2019, Portland’s police plane tracked a suspicious man park a pickup near North Dixon Avenue and Benton Street about 9:35 p.m.
Investigators watched the man walk along the street, lurking and looking into the windows of parked cars. Suddenly, he dipped into another pickup.
An officer in the plane guided police cars on the ground to where Fonseca stepped out of a white 2004 Chevy Tahoe.
The stereo had been removed from the dash. Officers found several tools in the car that was broken into, as well as a black hat, gloves and flashlight, according to police reports.
“My heart sunk,” Chris Mongelli recalled, when he answered his cellphone at the end of a Trail Blazers game and an officer was on the other end.
Mongelli walked back to his Tahoe and saw police had a man, later identified as Fonseca, in handcuffs and sitting on a curb.
“He popped the lock key with a flat head (screwdriver) and rifled through all my stuff,” Mongelli said.
He was one of the luckier victims.
‘WORK HARD DREAM BIG’
Police seized Fonseca’s cellphone from the pickup truck he had rented that night and got a warrant to search through it.
They found it full of incriminating evidence, particularly Fonseca’s own drive-by videos of the carnage he left behind, according to court and prosecutors’ records.
He captioned one video “Work hard Dream Big.” It shows him driving by a shiny white Jeep resting on cinder blocks and stripped of its tires and rims.
In another, he can be heard saying, “We done for the night, let’s go home,” as he walks around a gray truck, each of its wheels and tail lights removed.
One other captures Fonseca sitting in a truck going through a car wash. The driver, who prosecutors presume is his girlfriend, can be heard joking, “Washing our money!” as the camera pans to the cash spread over Fonseca’s lap as he sits in the front passenger seat, according to Chelsea Jones, a Clackamas County deputy district attorney.
The stories from Fonseca’s victims sound as maddening as they are familiar to people living in Portland, where 9,058 cars were reported stolen last year. Almost 80% were recovered within 30 days.
In the first four months of this year, police have logged 3,761 stolen car reports, according to police.
The Oregonian/OregonLive talked to several of the people identified in court records as the owners of cars targeted by Fonseca:
MAY 20, 2018
Timothy Eugene Lott Jr. woke to find his black 2005 Chevy Tahoe missing from where he parked it in front of his home on North Haight Avenue in Portland.
He had outfitted it with aftermarket parts, including the muffler, rims and a stereo.
But more concerning, he left his loaded Desert Eagle 9mm handgun in the glove box. It was now gone.
Lott called police right away.
About two weeks later, his Tahoe was found abandoned off Southeast Powell Boulevard. People had been living in it.
Everything was gone, he said, even its third row of seats. He estimated he lost at least $6,000 in stolen parts.
The driver’s side door lock and handle was completely busted. The thief must have been experienced, as he avoided setting off his truck’s alarm overnight, he said.
His gun hasn’t been recovered.
While Lott had a second car to drive, he said he can imagine others targeted might not have another car to use.
“It hits hard,” Lott said. “People rely on their cars to pick up the kids and go to work. He put a lot of stress on people.”
DEC. 27, 2018
Brandon Nealeigh, his wife and three young children had gone to Regal Cinemas in Wilsonville to see the movie “Aquaman” and returned to their white 2003 Chevy Tahoe to find the driver’s side door lock busted.
The truck’s radio was gone. The kids’ Christmas presents stolen. Nealeigh’s wallet, left in the center console concealed under some papers, also snatched.
But most distressing, Millie, a 15-week-old German shepherd service dog-in-training, was missing.
Nealeigh, a disabled Army combat veteran, alerted police and posted fliers on social media looking for Millie.
The man who took his truck used his credit card an hour later at a gas station in Wilsonville. Two days later, Nealeigh waited in his truck outside an apartment, a location that a credit card company had asked him to verify for a change in address. He figured it might lead to whoever had stolen his wallet and his dog.
While seated there, his wife alerted him she got an anonymous call saying a dog resembling Millie was seen at the Woodburn Outlet Mall. Forty-eight hours after it was stolen, the family found their dog outside the North Face store.
SEPT. 5, 2019
Patrick Mintun was leaving a restaurant with his family after a dinner out and spotted a two-door red Chevy Tahoe across the intersection.
It had “one-off, only-ones-like-it-in-the-world” custom bumpers, he said.
He recognized those bumpers, he said: They were from his wife’s forest green 1996 Chevy Tahoe before it was stolen two years earlier outside the emergency department of Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center in Oregon City.
He had reason to know. Mintun runs his own auto shop called Pat’s Good Guys Performance Center, builds custom cars for a living and had tricked out his wife’s Tahoe.
Mintun followed the red Tahoe, pulled up to the driver’s side and asked the woman behind the wheel to pull over. She told Mintun that he was “scaring her” and she would call police, according to Mintun and court records.
Mintun said he told her that he would call police because the bumpers on her truck belonged to him.
The woman drove off and he continued to follow her into Gladstone when, he said, “out of nowhere,” a gray Audi rammed his car and forced him off the road.
Fonseca got out of the Audi, confronted Mintun, asking why he was harassing his fiancée, according to prosecutors.
Fonseca then fled on foot, according to police and a video taken by a witness, prosecutors said.
He had been released after his initial February arrest in Portland seven months earlier. He had been arrested again in April 2019 in Clackamas County on more than 20 charges of theft and unauthorized use of a vehicle, and posted bail the next month.
After the hit-and-run, Fonseca went missing for about 1½ years, according to prosecutors, before he was arrested in Las Vegas in April 2021 and returned to Oregon.
‘A LOT OF PEOPLE MISERABLE’
Fonseca pleaded guilty on May 18 to 38 charges in a global agreement.
“These were difficult cases for both sides, but we are glad to have reached a resolution,” said Ruben Medina, Fonseca’s lawyer.
The plea covered 18 counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle, two counts of aggravated theft, eight counts of first-degree theft, two counts of identity theft, two counts of criminal mischief, two counts of being a felon with a firearm and one counts of reckless endangerment. He also pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, third-degree assault and criminal mischief in the hit-and-run crash with Mintun.
“I’m sure he made a lot of money,” Mintun said, “and a lot of people miserable.”
Applegate on Monday pleaded guilty to 11 charges – bribe receiving, first-degree official misconduct, four counts of felony computer crime, three counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle and two counts of identity theft.
The deals for both came after an Oregon Supreme Court ruling last year struck down much of the automobile exception to the state constitution’s ban against unreasonable search and seizure.
Police took Fonseca’s phone without a warrant under the exception, which had allowed such seizures under the rationale that evidence of a crime may be lost as a car drives away. Police subsequently got a warrant to search the phone.
But the Supreme Court decision in December 2021 meant that much of the information found on Fonseca’s phone wouldn’t have been admissible if the case had gone to trial.
And the phone evidence broke the case open and led to Applegate, said Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Demer.
The one-day jail term for Applegate proved to be the best way to ensure Fonseca did prison time, Demer said. Fonseca had requested the light sentence for Applegate.
“This was the only way we could hold him accountable,” Demer said.
Defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig said Applegate has no prior criminal record. She said her client’s loss of a job she loved at the DMV “is one of the hardest punishments she’s facing.”
Applegate must also complete 160 hours of community service.
Several of the people who suffered losses from the crimes said they found it stunning that both Fonseca and Applegate didn’t face stiffer sentences.
Iyinbor, whose fiancée reported his Tahoe stolen from Clackamas Town Center in December 2018, said he was particularly disappointed in the outcome for Applegate.
“She was entrusted in a position of authority and power and she violated that power. I’m a soldier,” said Iyinbor, an Army recruiter. “I can’t abuse my power. She should have been incarcerated.”
Lott, whose gun was stolen from his Chevy Tahoe’s glovebox, said he’s glad Fonseca is finally headed to prison.
“He’s clever,” Lott said, “but obviously wasn’t that clever.”
— Maxine Bernstein
Email [email protected]; 503-221-8212
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