Van fire turns into whodunit

December 30, 2002 11:00 pm

By AMY LINDBLOM

It's a mystery.

A man is taken to the hospital, injured and covered in shattered auto glass, not long after a burning, stolen van crashes into a tree.

The same man admits to having just been paroled from a Nevada prison — for car theft. But he denies being involved in either the van theft or crash.

It all started about 3:30 a.m. Monday, when a Summit Beverage Company van was discovered on fire, wrapped around a tree on Highway 49 at Springfield Road.

About two hours later, the injured parolee showed up at a house near the crash site, asking for help. He told the woman who answered the door that he had been mugged. She called an ambulance to take him to Tuolumne General Hospital.

By then, the van fire had been put out and police feared they may find a body in or near the wreckage because whoever was driving had crashed head-on into a tree — going about 70 mph, California Highway Patrol Officer Tom Wills said.

The first emergency crews to arrive were certain the crash must have been fatal, so they began checking to see who owned the van.

They never found a body, but did discover that the van was stolen from Summit Beverage's parking lot on Southgate Drive in Sonora.

Sonora Police said it appears someone first took a truck from the J.S. West Propane lot on Stockton Road. Perhaps having problems with the propane-powered truck, the culprit drove a couple blocks over to Summit Beverage and took the van, leaving the truck parked next to where the van had been.

While investigating the two vehicle thefts, Sonora Police officer John Mager learned about the injured man and went to the hospital.

When he got there, he said, he found the 34-year-old parolee soaking wet and smelling of alcohol.

The man had cuts on his arms, a head injury and broken auto glass and oak leaves in his pockets — leading Mager to suspect the man had been involved in a car accident.