The thieves who stole a car from a driveway in rural Mascoutah may be messing with the wrong family.
The Bretzes are using Facebook to help solve the crime, and they have put up a homemade billboard to seek information and warn neighbors to be cautious.
"They not only stole the car," said Paul Bretz, 38, of New Baden. "They stole a trailer that we think they used to haul the car away."
The 1988 red Ford Mustang belongs to Paul, a mechanic who was storing it at his parents' house along Illinois 161 in rural Mascoutah.
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Karl and Barbara Bretz were home when it disappeared early Thursday, March 29, and they reported the theft to the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department.
"They stole it right from under my nose," said Karl, 75, a retired electronic technician who worked at Basler Electric in Highland.
"People are getting awfully daring these days, and we don't like to see it," Paul added.
Paul's wife, Christelle, posted the news on Facebook, prompting several tipsters to come forward. Some reported seeing a suspicious Dodge Ram truck with tinted windows and a loud motor.
Paul and other family members made the 8-by-16-foot billboard out of plywood with red spray-painted words. They braced it on a trailer along Illinois 161. It reads "Red car stolen from here 3/29-AM. Looking for gray dodge. NEED HELP" and includes a phone number.
On Sunday night, a Sheriff's Department employee called Paul to notify him that the Mustang had been found abandoned in St. Louis. It's now in a police impound facility.
"We're working on getting it over here to be processed by the Illinois State Police crime scene," Capt. Bruce Fleshren said Tuesday. No arrests have been made, and the case is under investigation.
That's good news for Paul, but he isn't in a rush to take down the billboard. He may leave it up a little longer to see if it yields any more clues.
Karl and Barbara's brick ranch along Illinois 161 is something of a local landmark because of a tall tower on the property. Karl is a ham radio operator.
"We've been out here since 1986, and we've never had any trouble," he said.
On the morning of March 29, Karl glanced out the window and saw someone in his backyard. He wasn't alarmed because his five grown children are always stopping by to get things out of a storage shed. After determining it wasn't one of the kids, he stuck his head out the back door.
"I said, 'Can I help you?' and the man said, 'I'm looking for my dog,'" Karl recalls.
This seemed plausible because many dogs have wondered onto the Bretz property over the years. Karl described the man as white and tall with a scruffy beard and dark hoodie.
Karl said he asked the man what kind of dog he owned, and the man answered "a small dog." But when Karl pressed him on the breed, the man said "Doberman Pinscher." That was odd, Karl thought, but not enough to call the police.
"I went back to reading the stock market report on the computer," Karl said. "A little later, my wife said, 'Paul's car is gone.' By that time, I figured out, 'Hey, there's something goofy going on here.'"
The family believes at least two men were involved in the theft and that they removed the battery from Karl's Ford Ranger truck and put it in the Mustang, which didn't have a battery. The Mustang may have started acting up on the road, prompting the men to return and steal the trailer to haul it.
One neighbor who saw Paul's billboard over the weekend stopped by to tell the Bretzes that he may have actually talked to the thieves.
"He saw the men attempting to load a car on a trailer on Renth Road, and he noticed that they were having trouble, so he stopped by and offered to help," Karl said. "He didn't know it was a stolen car."
The Facebook posts and billboard have caused some neighbors to be more aware of their surroundings and others to consider taking action to protect their property.
"We may be investing in outdoor cameras soon," one wrote. "Too close to home."
The Bretzes still have trouble believing that they were the victims of such an unusual crime.
"It's scary," Paul said. "You lose your sense of security. You feel bad. You feel horrible."
But Karl said he's not going to let one negative incident in more than 30 years of living in the area to get him down or intimidate him.
"I can handle it," he said.