At the East Oakside Drive intersection with Hope Lane in Sonora, two one-foot-deep holes are the only remains of a greater mystery confounding city employees, law enforcement and residents — who stole the signs that once stood on the corner?

Joanne Miller and her husband Tom, the corner residents on the 400 block of East Oakside Drive, said an undercurrent of discomfort had risen in the neighborhood since a spate of thefts had made off with two road signs, three stop signs, and even the poles they were affixed to.

“We’re very uneasy because it’s right in front of our house,” she said. “On this corner we pretty much watch out for it. Just to think, someone out there is just stealing stop signs.”

The thefts include the road signs for East Oakside Drive and Hope Lane, as well as the metal pole they were attached to; the stop sign and pole in the westbound lane of East Jackson Street; a stop sign and wooden pole on the north side of East Oakside Drive; and a temporary replacement stop sign set on an A-frame on Oakside Drive, all along the intersection with Hope Lane.

The Sonora Police Department has classified the heist as grand theft, a felony, with the estimated value of the all stolen items at more than $950.

But according to the Millers, the thefts did not occur in just one clean sweep of the road over a single night.

The road signs disappeared toward the end of summer, Joanne Miller said, but they believed the city had uprooted the pole, which had been leaning precariously in a widening depression of dirt.

Then, before Christmas, the stop sign across the street from their home vanished.

But it wasn’t until the last weekend, when the temporary replacement stop sign set to an A-frame also went missing, that they decided to file a report to the Sonora Police Department and the City of Sonora Department of Public Works.

Despite the couple’s submitted report, Joanne Miller said she had little hope that the signs might be discovered.

Sgt. Glenn Roberts said sign theft was a relatively infrequent occurrence, but he could not remember any time that the Sonora Police Department had located a perpetrator.

“Over the years we've had stealing a street sign or stop sign or something else. It’s unusual, but not that unusual,” he said.

It was more than likely, he added, that the signs were probably hiding in plain sight, adorning the walls of someone’s home, garage, or parlor.

“I don't know why they're targeting that area. It could be somebody living in that area, it could have been someone passing through going to the apartment complex or going to the school. But why that area, I don't know.”

According to California Vehicle Code Section 21464(a), the removal of a traffic control sign or guidepost can result in a fine of up to $5,000 dollars. If the removal of the sign results in injury or death of a person, the fine is set between $5,000 and $10,000, and can also include a prison sentence of up to six months.

Besides the brazenness and irresponsibility of uprooting an entire city-owned pole from the ground, he said, the theft includes public safety implications.

“It's just a very dangerous and hazardous situation. People don't stop, accidents happen, people get hurt and killed,” he said. “If we do find out who took them it'll be criminal charges that will probably be filed.”

Public Works Specialist Matt Lewallen also had little hope that the signs might be recovered, noting that a stop sign had been stolen about a year ago from the same location at East Jackson Street and Hope Lane.

Lewallen said that Public Works would be tasked with cutting a new 8-foot wooden pole for the replacement sign, digging a new hole, and setting and aligning the post. All in all, the design and installation of the replacement would take hours, he said, but ultimately detracted from time that could be spent on more pressing city projects.

“It’s unfortunate because it costs the city time and money,” he said.

Public Works Assistant Clayton Harris added, smiling, “most of the time it’s a car that takes them out.”

At the Public Works Department office on School Street, a verticalized cubby held a vast collection of replacement traffic and city signage, including five stop signs.

Most of the replacement stockpile were 36 inches by 36 inches in the standard octagonal design, with some sheened with high-intensity reflection strips. But only one in the group was smaller than the rest, and fit the sizing of the typical stop signs in the neighborhood.

Until the permanent replacement signs are installed, stop signs affixed to an A-frame are set at East Oakside Drive and East Jackson Street along the intersection with Hope Lane.

Somewhat obscured on Tuesday by piles of sodden leaves and heaps of mud, both frames were attached by small chains, respectively, to a grate on East Jackson Street, and to an electrical pole on East Oakside Drive.

Across the street from the Miller residence, Alice Harden, 94, on the 80 block of Hope Street, said she had no idea the stops signs had been stolen until she poked her head out the door on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ll be damned. I wonder why they did that,” she said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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