San Francisco, CA — A mechanic who took a $3 part from what he believed was a junked car was acquitted of vehicle tampering, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors in the trial of Ben Velez, 51, deliberated approximately two hours Wednesday afternoon before finding him not guilty of the single misdemeanor count, said Velez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Abigail Rivamonte.
Velez, a longtime San Francisco mechanic and truck driver, was awakened Oct. 24, 2011, to the sound of metal hitting metal. Velez followed the noise to the back fence of his Little Hollywood home, where he saw a man parked 30 feet away, working under the hood of a 2001 Mercedes. Velez identified himself as a mechanic and offered the man help. In return, the man told Velez that his car was junk and would be towed tomorrow, offering, “Take what you want.”
Velez, who frequently visited junk yards and recycled auto part lots, told the stranger he was on his way to work but would take him up on his offer later. Velez returned home at 8 p.m., and approached the car with his tools.
He noticed that the car’s interior was completely stripped and assumed that most of the parts had already been given away, Velez testified during the two day trial. Velez salvaged a valve stem cover and put it in his pocket. Police on patrol spotted him, handcuffed him, and told him the vehicle had been involved in a carjacking.
Fearing he would be wrongly connected to a carjacking, Velez did not tell the officers about his conversation with the man earlier in the day. Instead, he tried to distance himself by telling them only that, “if anything, I was maybe going to take brake pads.”
On the stand and with nothing to fear, however, Velez told jurors the whole story.
“It was clear that Mr. Velez believed he had consent from the car’s rightful owner,” Rivamonte said. “To believe a law abiding man would try to dismantle a car and steal its parts while parked just feet from his home at 8 p.m. is ludicrous.”
Velez’s employer of 30 years testified as a character witness during the trial, stating that Velez was an honest, trustworthy man.
Velez was in jail for three days before being released on his own recognizance. He faced up to a year behind bars if convicted.
Adachi applauded the jury’s decision.
“Mr. Velez was truly in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Adachi said. “Jurors carefully weighed the evidence and testimony and determined he had done nothing wrong.”