Rod Whaley can't catch a break.
In late 2008, the 61-year-old former Marine and Vietnam War veteran opened his dream auto restoration shop in Empire with his wife, Lenore Ulrich.
Since then they've had more than 20 break-ins at Classic Dreams. He estimates that burglars have taken off with or damaged some $200,000 worth of cars, parts, tools and accessories.
It's enough to bring a small business owner to his knees, but the monetary loss is only part of Whaley's problems. He said the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department response to his burglaries and vandalism has been almost as frustrating.
"We've been broken into so many times and all the Sheriff's Department says is write down a list of the things you're missing," Whaley said. "Then all I get is a case number. We're at the point where we're mad at the Sheriff's Department. I pay my taxes and I'm not getting a fair shake from these guys."
Undersheriff Bill Heyne said the department has 11 reports on file from Classic Dreams for everything from commercial burglaries to stolen vehicles and vandalism. The last report was from this Thursday, when burglars broke into the shop's 3-acre yard and stripped car parts.
But early Friday morning the burglars were back to take even more, Whaley said.
He said he hasn't bothered to call the sheriff with every incident, but the times he has the response has been minimal. He said deputies came out only a handful of times to survey the damage.
A deputy came out on Friday afternoon to take crime scene photos and gather evidence. But Whaley said that response was only after he contacted the media, his congressman, his assemblyman and the state insurance commissioner.
"As long as I rattle the cage, they'll be out here," he said.
Most incidents too small
Heyne said most of the incidents at Classic Dreams were too small to warrant a deputy response, from stolen cars to broken windows.
"A case may or may not be assigned to a detective depending on whether or not there is anything to go on," Heyne said. "And then the detective will typically read the case, but then only work the cases where there are suspects, physical evidence, vehicle descriptions or license plates. If there is nothing else to go on, the case is closed out."
He said the last incident that warranted a follow-up was a commercial burglary report in November. The department, like law enforcement agencies across the state, has cut back as the recession has taken a toll on its budget.
The Empire area where Whaley's store sits has one dedicated sheriff's deputy, who patrols an area spanning Empire to Riverbank, and a community deputy who also patrols Modesto's airport neighborhood.
Budget cuts have taken the number of detectives the department has from 20 to 14 (not including the gang unit and other specialized units), to cover the county's 1,500-square-mile area. Empire used to have its own dedicated detective, but that position was cut in February.
"It's like a hospital, it's a triage," Heyne said. "If there is physical evidence or suspect information those are the cases that come out first. We've had to strip down the department with budget cuts. We do not have the resources to work every theft that occurs in this county."
Whaley said while he understands the department has limited resources, he is running out of his own as well. In one of the earlier break-ins last summer the thieves broke his alarm system. He still has surveillance cameras, but the monitors and computers that ran them were stolen.
Circumventing the guard
He has a security guard who patrols the area, but thieves wait for him to leave or go to another area before striking. A chain-link fence with barbed wire circles the property. In the last two break-ins they cut through the fence and then helped themselves to radiators, dashboard computer systems and other parts. Whaley said both burglaries this week have cost him several thousand dollars.
He said he can no longer afford the insurance on the cars, so all repairs and replacements are coming out of his pocket.
"We've worked so hard for so long. We lost our son three years ago (to a accidental medication overdose)," he said. "I put every dime that I've got into this. This is my passion, this is what I do."
His shop, which sells a mix of new and classic cars, has more than 200 vehicles on the lot. His showroom has a 1923 Buick Sport Touring car that was once used by President Harry S. Truman and a 1913 Ford Model-T Depot Hack. Out back he has a rare 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom 3 V-12.
Classic Dreams manager Arnold Gray said the burglaries are slashing the company's profits. The shop has had to downsize from seven employees to two.
"It's gotten to the point where I can't stand coming to work in the morning anymore," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to find. We're losing money every day"
Whaley just got out of the hospital two weeks ago after suffering a heart attack, which he said has been brought on by the stress from the break-ins. While in the hospital, he was also diagnosed with bone cancer.
The couple put the shop's property for sale on Friday.
"I just want to sell the whole thing and get gone," Whaley said. "I'm done. The damage is already done. It just makes me want to cry."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.