Melinda Drown was asleep when her husband, Brian, called at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday. He had just driven down their long, narrow driveway off Chile Gulch Road on his way to an early morning shift.

“He said, ‘Someone stole our gate,’ ” Melinda Drown said. “He was pissed. You don’t even want to know what he said.”

The 6-foot-tall, 15-foot-wide wrought iron gate at the entrance to their driveway.

Melinda Drown muttered a few choice expletives herself. Wasn’t crime the reason they bought one of those in the first place?

“It’s so weird, and it's scary on top of it,” she said. “Who would think a gate would ever get stolen? A gate. It might be the first big gate theft in Tuolumne County, I don’t know. I just think it’s a strange item to be stolen.”

Since Tuesday morning, Melinda Drown contacted neighbors in the Springfield Estates area, community members and Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputies. Not a single person she spoke to could remember a theft that was so brazen and so bizarre, she said.

“You put up a security gate and they take your security,” she said.

What has confounded Melinda Drown and Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office investigators thus far is how such an outlandish feat was accomplished — all in the dead of night and without any known witnesses.

The gate was constructed from heavy, wrought iron. Designed in a “fancier” double-swing gate style, it rises to a pinnacle in the center and is lined with sharp fleur-de-lis along the top.

“Someone was driving around at 3 a.m. with a huge gate. I would think it would be noticeable,” she said. “That gate was so big we couldn't even put it on a truck. It’s that big. It was either taken by a flatbed truck or someone would have had to have a trailer. Unless they stuck it up diagonal on a pickup, but they would scratch the hell out of their truck.”
Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Andrea Benson said the gate, which is valued at about $1,000, has been listed as stolen in a law enforcement database.

“This is a large item, which seems very uncommon to steal, though with the gate being a distance from the home the thieves may have seen an opportunity to go unnoticed during the theft,” Benson said.

Melinda Drown speculated that the thief or thieves may have been tipped to leave the scene after seeing the lights from her husband’s car up the hill.

But still, not a single person she spoke to — not her neighbors with an open window and dogs, nor her or her husband from their home — heard anything but silence, she said.

“I feel like someone was out to get this gate,” she said, noting the precision needed to remove eight big bolts, which held the gate to metal posts cemented into the ground.

The thieves may have unfinished business, she said, because they left behind a keypad and two arms that opened and closed the gate.

The arms had been unbolted when Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputies evaluated the scene, she said.

The gate was installed in April 2017 due to mounting concerns about criminal activity in their neighborhood.

In 2004, while they were building their house, a group of partiers vandalized the property. Two years ago, a person was arrested after illegally trespassing on their property and harvesting manzanita trees, she said.

“I'm so sick of it, and I've lived here my whole life,” she said.

A new gate will replace the old one very soon, she said, equipped with surveillance and security tools.

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office harvested a fingerprint from the site, she said, which may provide a lead in locating the perpetrators.

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office continues to stake out potential leads from neighbors or citizens who see a gate matching the description of the one that was stolen, Benson said.

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office requests that anyone with information regarding the theft, or anyone who sees a gate matching the description of the stolen one, contact (209) 533-5815.

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