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Child sleeps through theft of van from driveway

Three men were arrested early Wednesday morning after they allegedly stole a van with a sleeping child inside, abandoned it several blocks away and finished their journey in a taxi.

Merced police Sgt. Alan Ward said the van was stolen at 3:30 a.m. from West 12th Street after its owner left it running with their 7-year-old son asleep and went back into the house to get another child. They returned to see the vehicle being driven off.

Officer John Pinnagar found the van abandoned on West 13th Street; the child was found curled up in a blanket under a tree just up the block. Witnesses at Mercy Medical Center Merced reported seeing three men, who appeared out of breath, get into a taxi at the hospital.

A call to the taxi company confirmed a taxi picked up three people at the hospital and that they had dropped them off on Easy Street east of Merced and that a car had just left the residence. Officers observed a vehicle leaving Easy Street heading back into the city. The vehicle was stopped on East Childs Avenue. The taxi driver and the witness from the hospital identified the men as the three who got into the taxi.

Paul Robert Benitez, 32; Fidel Granados Ortega, 25; and Alfonso Rodriguez III, 31, all of Merced, were arrested on auto theft charges and booked into Merced County Jail. Ortega and Rodriguez remained jailed in lieu of $10,000 and $45,000 bail, respectively, according to a correctional official.

Anyone with information about this investigation is asked to please contact Sgt. Scott Skinner at (209) 385-4702 or the tip line at (209) 385-4725.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or