MERCED — Hanging off the back of a cold, metal chair at a Taco Bell restaurant in Merced was a bright yellow purse.
The trusted keeper of a cash-filled wallet and a number of other essentials, the yellow purse was usually at its owner's side. Then on a recent trip through the valley, including a stop for dinner, the two became separated.
It was two hours after Jennifer Peterson, 40, had put Merced in her rearview mirror that she realized the yellow purse was missing.
"I could've died!" Peterson said, recalling the wave of panic that swept over her. "We didn't have time to go back to Merced, and I couldn't figure how to get it back."
Peterson, who lives in Rocklin, said she and her family stopped at the Taco Bell on their way to visit family. She had just entered Roseville when she realized she left her purse on the back of a chair inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Way restaurant.
What would follow is a 130-mile journey for the yellow purse and a series of events over the next few days that would amaze Peterson and restore her faith in humanity.
"I called Taco Bell right then. I didn't know what to do at that point because it was all the way in Merced," Peterson said.
Much to her surprise and relief, the staff told her that an employee had found the yellow purse, and that it now was tucked away inside a safe.
After catching her breath, Peterson faced another challenge: how to get the purse from Merced to Rocklin.
Gearing up for an expensive and timely process, Peterson called Taco Bell the next morning and spoke to Assistant Manager Russell Sanchez.
"Don't worry about it, I'm just going to mail it to you," Sanchez told her over the phone. "If it was my stuff, I'd want it back."
Peterson couldn't help being surprised. "I just couldn't believe that he would do that," she said, a little skeptical. "How can I pay you?"
Sanchez refused Peterson's offer for payment and by the weekend, the yellow purse had arrived back in her hands. All the contents were intact and untouched.
Grateful for the honesty, Peterson contacted Taco Bell corporate offices and wrote letters about the good people of Merced -- from the employee who found her purse to the Taco Bell night manager who secured it inside a safe -- and, of course, to Sanchez, who mailed it back without blinking an eye.
"To me, it's not a big deal. It's something simple," Sanchez said. "I thought she probably wanted it back, and it's better than her driving all the way back."
This isn't the first time Sanchez, who's been at Taco Bell for four years, has helped a customer in need. He mailed a forgotten wallet to a patron in Los Angeles last year.
He said his mother lost her camera in Disneyland recently and a conscientious person turned it in. Sanchez said he was grateful and thought to himself, "That's how it should be."
Sanchez, an Army veteran and father to a 6-year-old girl, said he was just doing what he was taught and trying to set a good example for his daughter.
"My parents were very good, and they did the right thing," he said. "Maybe it's a general rule in life, and I would like my daughter to see people doing the right thing."
Sanchez, who started his career as a team member and worked his way up to management, said he can't take credit for the successful return of the yellow purse.
"It touched three hands before it got to me," he said of his staff. "It was all them. I just mailed it."
The franchise owner of the Taco Bell said putting a purse inside the safe is standard policy, but it depends on the honesty of the other customers. He acknowledged that Sanchez went the extra mile.
"He's a good person," said Marvin Mackin. "And that's why she got her purse back."
Sanchez said the compliments to his store are what mean most to him. "I was more happy for the compliments about the store because that's our job and customer service is No. 1 for us," he said.
If he had to do it over again, Sanchez said he wouldn't change a thing.
For Peterson, the example of Sanchez's generosity is a reflection of the "honest" people of Merced. She mailed a thank-you card with movie tickets to Sanchez, who said he will give them to the employee who found the purse.
"I'm just really impressed by the people of Merced," Peterson said. "It makes me want to stop there more often. I just didn't know how to repay Russell for going above and beyond."
One way she can repay him is by visiting the restaurant on her next trip through Merced. "Oh, for sure, and we'll be stopping at Taco Bell," she laughed.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.