RIPON -- When Francisco and Sandra Moreno moved out of their upscale, foreclosed home west of Jack Tone Golf Course in February, authorities said they took everything.
And they meant everything.
The couple took cabinet doors, toilets, ceiling fans, two water heaters, built-in kitchen appliances, iron gates and three air-conditioning units, according to court documents filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
The list doesn't stop there.
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Court documents claim the Morenos took attic heating units, doorknobs and locks, a bathtub-jacuzzi, bathroom sink faucet hardware, glass shower doors, a garage wash basin, electric circuit breaker panel and its circuit breakers, and several other items.
Ripon police detectives last Tuesday arrested the Morenos on suspicion of felony grand theft. They are accused of stripping fixtures worth nearly $100,000.
"We've had similar cases before, but these are the most extensive thefts we've seen so far," said Sgt. Steve Merchant.
House stripping is not uncommon in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, which has suffered from one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country since 2007. More than 52,000 homes have been foreclosed upon in that time.
San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Taylor said real estate officials report more than half of foreclosed homes in that county are stripped. He is prosecuting the Morenos along with another Ripon couple accused of the same crime in separate cases.
Stanislaus County does not have similar cases in court, although some real estate officials say house stripping is not uncommon.
"If they are proven guilty, then they're just common thieves," Taylor said of suspected house strippers. "You can't take these things from mortgaged houses."
The Morenos posted $90,000 bail each and have been released from jail. They have not entered pleas. The Bee's attempts to reach them were not successful.
The Morenos' foreclosed home was built in 2005, and the couple bought the 3,600- square-foot, four-bedroom house shortly afterward for $940,000, according to the court documents.
The Morenos' home loan defaulted in May 2009 and was sold at a trustee sale about a year later. Taylor said the Morenos stripped the house in clear view of their neighbors.
He is still amazed by the items that were taken.
"There is just something sad about seeing an empty space where a bathtub used to be, especially when it (doubled as) a jacuzzi." Taylor said. "They took the (custom-made iron) gates that lead into the house."
The investigation into the Morenos continues, Taylor said, and authorities expect to arrest those who helped unbolt, carry away or store the items, which have not been returned.
"We know the Morenos had a lot of help, and we're looking for those people, too," Taylor said. "People told about house-stripping plans should call the police and not join in."
The reasons people strip houses often are based on emotion.
Craig Lewis of Prudential California Realty in Modesto suggested that some residents may be angry and want to take out that anger on the lender foreclosing on the home. He said the owners may have invested in home improvements and feel they're owed something in return.
"I do not understand what compels people to do this," Lewis said. "It's really a selfish act."
He said the thefts affect the home's value, which sometimes attracts buyers looking for a bargain, while other buyers are deterred by so many missing items and damage.
In his experience, fewer homeowners are stripping foreclosed houses, possibly reflecting the work they've put into keeping them.
But Chad Costa of Modesto-based Re-Max Executive said house stripping still occurs in Stanislaus County and real estate officials are starting to file more police reports.
He said it's not always clear whether the previous owners committed the crime or thieves ransacked the vacant home. Sometimes, the stolen property is found being offered for sale on Internet sites.
"People have this attitude that they're going to stick it to the bank," said Costa, who specializes in foreclosures. "We've seen places where the carpets have been torn out, or they've jackhammered a hole in the floor."
The majority of the thefts in Stanislaus County resulted in kitchen appliances taken, things such as stoves and dishwashers. Costa said those thefts, however, pale in comparison to the amount of items missing in Ripon.
Not too far from the Morenos' foreclosed home, a similar crime is alleged to have occurred at a home once owned by John and Janette Freitas.
Taylor, the San Joaquin prosecutor, said the Morenos and the Freitases were acquainted and lived around the corner from each other. He said the wives are friends and both worked as real estate agents.
The Freitases were arrested late last month on suspicion of felony grand theft, extortion and attempted extortion.
The couple is accused of stripping their $1 million foreclosed home in July 2009 and trying to sell the stolen items to the new owners for $50,000 a few months later. Attempts to reach the Freitases were not successful.
One couple returned items
The Freitases took a dishwasher, a stove, ceiling fans, a burglar alarm, a built-in refrigerator, towel racks, a toilet paper holder, an attic ladder, exterior lighting fixtures, shower doors, a doorbell and a long list of other items, according to court documents.
Taylor said the Freitases have a storage business in Turlock, where they kept the stolen items.
The Freitases were released from custody on their own recognizance pending their court case. Taylor said the couple has returned the fixtures.
"If you have done this, bring the stuff back and improve your standing," Taylor said. "We're looking to make examples of people who are destroying homes. We want this to stop."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.