Pilot spots thief at his home from the sky

Posted at 8:04 AM, Jan 02, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-02 08:04:22-05

By Tom Watkins, CNN

(CNN) — A lot of things can go wrong in life that you can plan for, but some are just too far-fetched to bother with — or so you’d think.

Just ask the man who stole a trailer from outside a Florida home, unconcerned about the small plane buzzing overhead.

Turns out the pilot of the single-engine Cessna was the home owner who just happened to be flying by when he spotted the theft in progress.

“We watched him just walk out right in front of us,” David Zehntner, the homeowner, recounted Tuesday. “Two or three times, he literally looked up at us. At one point, he even stood with his hands on his hips and looked up at us.”

The incident occurred Sunday afternoon, when Zehntner was flying back to Labelle, outside Fort Myers, from Franklin, North Carolina, where he and his wife had spent Christmas at their second home.

“The flight path and the landing procedure here in Labelle flies right over our property anyway,” the 56-year-old retired auto parts store manager said. “So we always make a circle over our property.”

As they reached an altitude of 800 feet, his wife noticed something odd.

“My wife says, ‘Honey, there’s somebody at our house. There’s a truck parked in our driveway,’” Zehntner said.

Zehntner dropped the plane to 300 feet and buzzed their ranch home.

“We see this guy walking around our house looking in windows, checking the doors, scoping the house out,” he said. “And it wasn’t anybody we knew.”

The man then picked up a 6-foot-by-12-foot red utility trailer that was parked outside the house, set it on the bumper hitch to a pickup truck, hooked it up and drove off, Zehntner said.

“My wife kept saying, ‘Land, land,’” he said.

But Zehntner couldn’t land; there was no airport nearby.

“I said, ‘Honey, he’s not going to get away. There’s no way he’s going to get away.’”

Zehntner followed the truck and trailer the seven miles into town.

“At no point did he act like he made any correlation — like, ‘Wait a minute, this guy is following me,’” Zehntner said.

At one point, the truck stopped at a red light in front of the police station, but Zehntner could do nothing.

He had a cell phone, but the prop noise would have drowned out any attempt at conversation.

When the truck pulled onto State Road 80 headed west out of Labelle, Zehntner made a quick landing and called the Hendry County 911 dispatcher, who put out a be-on-the-lookout call for the silver truck with a white top pulling a stolen trailer.

Within half an hour, he got a call from deputies flying a helicopter in nearby Lee County and gave them a description of the vehicle.

“They said, ‘I think we’ve got him. Hold on. Somebody will call you back shortly.’”

Some five minutes later, a Lee County deputy sheriff called and asked for a description of the man. That was easy, since the view from 300 feet had been clear: Handlebar mustache, 6-foot tall, medium build.

A few minutes later, he got another call asking him to drive over to where they had stopped the truck on I-75 heading into Charlotte County and verify that the trailer was his.

Police said they had found guns inside the truck and wanted to know whether they were Zehntner’s, he said.

They were not.

“We went back, recovered our trailer; they impounded his truck, took him to the Charlotte County Jail and we took our trailer home — and we were happy,” Zehntner said.

He said police told him the obvious — he was lucky.

“Most of the time — crimes like this — they get away and it’s hell for the police to try to find the stuff,” he said. “I don’t think my wife’s still gotten over it.”

Since Zehntner built the house in 1980 for his parents, it had been broken into several times, but that occurred before he installed motion detectors, cameras and electronic switches on the windows.

“That’s probably what kept him from going in the house,” he said.

Zehntner said he was elated with the way the system worked.

“I hear people all the time say there’s never a cop around when you need one,” he said. “I just want people to know that, when I needed one, there was a bunch around and they did an excellent job.”

Police identified the suspect as Gary Robert Haines, a 59-year-old Virginia man, and charged him with grand theft auto.

He was released from Charlotte County Jail Tuesday morning on a $2,500 bond.

CNN left a message at a telephone number listed in his name.

No one responded.