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Mar 20

The Full Story: How Uniting the Owner with Her Photos Happened

Tonya and the CBS 2 News VanWe couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.  The photos have been reunited with their owner, Tonya, thanks to the help of Reporter Rachel Kim of CBS News Los Angeles. We are grateful to Rachel and CBS for carrying our story so that it could reach so many more people.  Here’s how it all happened.

Immediately after finding the photographs on February 22, 2015, we wrote the blog and posted links to the images across the internet: on lost and found forums, craigslist, Twitter, Facebook groups, and more. Four weeks later, there were still no leads.  About then, Rachel was using her reporter skills, found our ad in the craiglist lost and found section, and reached out to us.

Rachel and her videographer, Angie, braved rush hour traffic out of Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 19, to hold the interview at our home in Garden Grove, Ca. We really enjoyed our time with them. It was like we were friends playing detective and curiously sorting through the photos.  The interview aired that very evening.  Watch it here on CBS News Los Angeles’ website.

It was just 20 hours after the broadcast that a woman named Martha, a cousin “in-law” to Tonya’s niece Teresa, recognized her cousins and aunt in the photos. She lives in Buena Park and saw the CBS online video of the interview.  Martha recounted how a Buena Park Facebook group shared KCAL 9 News’ story.  She said that she rarely clicks on human interest stories in Facebook, but made an exception for Rachel’s interview, maybe because of the Buena Park aspect and the thought that she might recognize someone. The advertisement before the feature almost made her close out the link, but she persisted and started to watch the news report.

It was then that the double take happened. “Was that my cousin Teresa I just saw?” she thought to herself. She rewound and paused to get a good look. Her heart started pounding.  Martha then went to her brother for confirmation, and he felt certain it was Teresa and her brothers as well.

The story on CBS News’ site provided a link to this blog.  Martha was able to send an email to us through the contact page. She stated that she recognized her family in the photos and that she forwarded them the link to the story.  Kelly was so excited about the news in the email we received that she asked Martha to pass on our phone number right away.

It was funny because Teresa, who moved from So Cal to Oregon in 2006, did not watch the video right away because she didn’t realize what Martha was trying to communicate about its significance.  It was the second message from Martha to Teresa that contained our phone number and a note to contact the woman in the video who had the photos that made Teresa realize there was something more to it.

That’s when things started getting crazy. The links to the video were flying between family members as well as text message and calls.  Teresa called Kelly right away, now almost 24 hours after the network TV broadcast. Teresa was in tears, she was so overjoyed at seeing photos of her family and, especially, her grandmother. Kelly and Teresa rejoined calling each other by Skype video shortly after that initial call. They talked for 40 minutes on screen with each other.  Kelly held up photos to the webcam and asked questions to satisfy her curiosity and listen to Teresa’s stories and cherished memories.

When discussing how and when the photos were lost, it was initially believed that these were Teresa’s mother’s, Crystal’s, photos.  Those photos were lost when hard times caused her to lose her storage unit where the photos were kept. The big mystery was that the storage unit had been lost about nine years prior. It didn’t make sense that the photos would show up scattered in a street nine years later.  Crystal’s sister (Teresa’s aunt), Tonya, lives in Buena Park, but she denied ever having their mother’s photos.  Tonya didn’t get the opportunity to see the photos online because of her schedule working at the hospital. Had she seen the photos, she would have recognized that they were not her mom’s, but hers. The story gets crazier because the thought never occurred to Tonya that the photos could have been hers since she didn’t even know they had been lost!

If you are still following this, congratulations. Teresa, Crystal, and we went to bed Thursday night all believing the long lost storage unit photos had miraculously appeared. Certainly the nine year disappearance was a huge mystery to be solved, but it almost didn’t matter since the prodigal photos had returned. Stranger than fiction certainly.

Friday morning, we woke up to a text from Teresa that the mystery had been solved. Tonya was able to view the photos online and instantly recognized that they were hers.  The explanation was clear but surprising. On February 17, Tonya was hit by another driver where it caused her trunk to open and the photos to be thrown from her vehicle. She had recently transferred them from an album to a plastic photo box for ease of moving them without the heavy book. Her car was totaled and towed away. Tonya went to retrieve her belongings from the car in the tow yard, but she didn’t notice that the bag with the photo box was missing.

Five days after the accident, on February 22, is when we were geocaching in Buena Park and found the photos on the street and sidewalk. We imagined that, at some point, another vehicle struck the photo box and caused the photos to go flying. A low pressure system moved in and the wind became strong just before a sizable rainstorm arrived the evening of Feb 22. The photos were spread over a half mile, mostly in the gutter and on the sidewalk and business frontage landscaping.

As we were picking up the photos, one woman with her baby in a large stroller was walking north towards us.  She had already passed half the photos on the block behind her but then saw us gathering them all up.  She started picking the ones up around her.  As we met up, she asked if the photos were ours. Kelly explained that they weren’t but they looked like family photos that someone might have lost and that maybe we could locate the owner. She commented that it was thoughtful of us and wished us luck.

Knowing, now, that the photos were out there for five days, we find it shocking that someone else had not picked them up by then. Why could that be?  Do people lack curiosity to the world around them to notice the photos there at all? Did most assume it was just trash?  Are they pessimistic to the idea that the owner could be found?  Did some of them just think that it wasn’t not their problem? Regardless of why nobody had picked them up by then, at least we did at that point.

Fast-forwarding back to when the mystery of the owner had been solved, Friday March 20, a day and a half after the broadcast, Tonya got our number from her niece Teresa and called Kelly directly. Luckily, the hospital where Tonya worked was only minutes from our house.  We made a plan to meet with Tonya that evening on her way home at our house.

We told Rachel the good news. She was so excited and happy to hear of the success. She asked to join us Friday evening with a cameraman so she could be there when we handed the photos to Tonya. The happy reunion came together that night and it was captured and broadcast on the KCAL 9 News and CBS 2 News Los Angeles the same night.  Watch the rebroadcast online at CBS 2 Los Angeles website here. 

It was extremely touching to see how much the photos meant to Tonya.  It was a great pleasure to have helped her in that way.  We wish we had discovered the photos sooner and saved more of them but at least we were able to find as many as we did.

It’s wild thinking back on the events that strung together to this day: We would have never been brought to that spot if it wasn’t for the existence of geocaching, the treasure hunt game. The photos, having been out in the elements for five days had only had two or three hours left to be rescued before the heavy downpour of rain would have destroyed them.  We were there that day because we postponed our geocaching weekend by one week due to Kelly’s grandmother’s funeral the week before.  Rachel, and her curious reporter nature, stayed up late one evening to look for interesting stories in Lost and Found postings. And lastly, Martha made an exception to watching shared human interest videos on Facebook and almost aborted watching it out not willing to endure a video advertisement.

This story could have ended so many different ways, but  we don’t think it could have been much rewarding than the way it did.

As Kelly put it, “It doesn’t take a lot to do something kind for someone else, but it could mean a lot for them.”

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