Teen Pita Pit worker on nabbing thief: 'Really smart or really stupid'

Teen Pita Pit worker on nabbing thief: 'Really smart or really stupid'
Brady Ulen works in the kitchen prep area Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at Pita Pit in Post Falls, Idaho. The Post Falls High School senior helped apprehend a suspected car thief Saturday after he noticed a car near his work that was reported stolen the day before. (AP Photo/Coeur d'Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Brady Ulen is a sprinter.

First and foremost, actually, Ulen is a soccer player — a defensive center back for Post Falls High School whose skills earned him a full-ride soccer scholarship to Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Ore., beginning this fall.

But Ulen sprints too.

He can clock 200 meters in 22 seconds, and 400 takes around 51 - though when the two sports schedules conflict in the spring he chooses soccer over track every time.

So when Ulen took off on a recent Saturday after a suspected car and wallet thief who was trying to outrun police, well, the suspect couldn't outrun Ulen.

"I probably ran faster there than I ever will in my life just because I had a little motivation in front of me," the 17-year-old Post Falls senior said of the foot pursuit across a strip mall parking lot that ended in Ulen tackling the suspect who's now sitting in jail. "Just an adrenaline rush."

Post Falls police arrested Brandon J. Lenker around 12:30 p.m. Saturday outside Nate's New York Pizza near east Mullan Avenue and Highway 41 in Post Falls thanks to Ulen.

Lenker is facing charges for grand theft, two counts of possession of a controlled substance, possession of paraphernalia, possession of stolen vehicle, eluding, driving while suspended and having an outstanding warrant from Bannock County, according to Kootenai County jail officials. His bond totals $52,100.

But even before he corralled Lenker, Ulen tipped police to the suspect's whereabouts.

The story started the day before the arrest — Friday — around 10 p.m.

Ulen was working the night shift at Pita Pit, when a man drove through the drive through in a 2000 Honda Civic and ordered four pitas. The man was wearing gloves and he didn't make eye contact, both of which Ulen thought unusual.

The man was Lenker, according to police reports. He later told police he ordered $32.16 in pitas "because he was hungry."

But, according to police reports, the debit card Lenker used to pay for the food was stolen. It belonged to Steven Casley, 21, and it was inside Casley's car when Lenker reportedly swiped the Civic when it was parked outside Peak Fitness in Coeur d'Alene. Lenker allegedly walked into the gym, inquired about a membership, then grabbed the car keys from the basket at the front desk where members store their keys while they work out.

After Casley realized he was robbed, he checked his back account activity and saw that someone charged around $200 on the card at Walmart. He went to the box retailer in Post Falls and saw surveillance video of the suspect, buying a knife, gloves and knife sharpener. Casley then went to the Pita Pit where Ulen confirmed a similar looking suspect had ordered the food.

The suspect, sometime after his food order, used the Pita Pit's Dumpster to toss discarded boxes. But the suspect also tossed two pair of brand new gloves and a knife, too, possibly for short-term safe keeping. But the store's workers noticed the left-behind items and brought them in the store.

When Lenker returned to the restaurant Saturday to look through the store's Dumspter to collect the items, Ulen recognized him.

"Same gloves, everything." Ulen said, as he watched the man, wearing the same gloves as the night before, jump a fence and rummage through the trash bin. "I knew it was the exact guy."

Ulen, dressed in his black-and-red work uniform, went outside to his truck and called police. When the suspect began to drive away, he locked eyes with Ulen.

"Straight staring me down," Ulen said.

The suspect, described as being in his late 20s or early 30s, turned into a nearby gas station off Mullan Avenue. Ulen trailed him. The suspect, Ulen said, noticed he was being trailed and drove back across Mullan Avenue and headed into the parking lot where the Pita Pit is located. By now, police drove up, and Ulen hollered for their attention, and pointed to the stolen car, which was behind a car wash, according to police reports.

All the while, Ulen drove north on Highway 41, parallel to the suspect in the lot.

When the suspect tried to turn out of the parking lot onto the highway, Ulen pulled his car up, blocking the exit with another police vehicle.

"What was I thinking?" Ulen said. "This is either really smart or really stupid."

The suspect, boxed in, ran the Honda into the officer's vehicle.

Police reports said that Lenker told officers he was attempting to squeeze between Ulen and the officer's car but "accidentally hit the gas at the same time as the brake" because "he is not very good at driving stick shift." It caused more than $1,000 of damage to the police cruiser.

Blocked in, Lenker reportedly bailed from the car and started running.

"I was sitting in my truck letting the cops do their thing," Ulen remembered, as he watched the suspect arc his run north, through the parking lot, toward Nate's New York Pizza. But "he's gonna get away, you know? So I hopped out of my truck."

That's when, according to Ulen, he clocked his fastest 400 time, 200 time — fastest time, period. He shot the 60 or so yards over the cement, grass islands, "at full speed."

"I was like, this is it," Ulen said. "I still had all my work clothes on, my apron, my hat, everything."

When Ulen passed by the officers, he expected them to tell him to stop.

They didn't.

But like a true defender in sport, Ulen took a straight angle to the spot he anticipated the suspect to be - he didn't follow the steps the suspect had already taken.

"I don't think he even knew I was behind him," he said of Lenker, who was peering over his shoulder at the officers, not at Ulen bearing down from the other side, when Ulen tackled him. "He thought he was good."

After the hit, the two crashed down on the cement in front of the pizza shop. Customers watched. The two recovered from the fall, and sat up and looked at one another.

"I thought, uh oh," Ulen said. "He's going to pull something on me."

Before Lenker could flee again, Ulen jumped on the suspect a second time, and put him in a choke hold he learned "by wrestling with my brother." Police got there around six seconds later.

Cuffed, Lenker looked over to his high school apprehender.

"Nice run kid," the suspect told him.

"Thanks," Ulen said.

Post Falls police said they appreciated Ulen's presence of mind in helping with the arrest, though citizens taking matters into their own hands can be dangerous, and it isn't recommended, they said. Casley called Ulen's action amazing, heroic and brave.

"It's amazing what a complete stranger would do for someone else," Casley said after he learned how his car, though damaged, had been recovered.

But Ulen said he wasn't trying to be a hero, he just wanted to do the right thing. In falling, he scraped his hand, which required a bandage. But the whole ordeal was done by 1 p.m., and after he cleaned his hand he went back to work for four more hours.

And he got a slice of pie. The pizza shop that watched the final scene and shares the parking lot with the Pita Pit gave Ulen a piece on the house.

"They gave me a slice of free pizza afterward for doing it," he said. "I guess that was a plus."

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Information from: Coeur d'Alene Press