PORT ST. LUCIE − With the help of the Florida Highway Patrol and Facebook, Port St. Lucie police found a man investigators said stole a van with a 55-year-old nonverbal man in it before ditching the vehicle in a residential area of the city.
John Peloquin, 46, of New Hampshire, was arrested Tuesday on charges including grand theft of a vehicle and abuse of a disabled adult.
Investigators said Peloquin on Monday took a Dodge Caravan that a worker at a group home left running as the group home worker stopped at a liquor store on Southwest Bayshore Boulevard and bought alcohol, Assistant Chief Richard Del Toro said.
The 55-year-old nonverbal man, who uses a wheelchair, was inside the vehicle.
Police later learned the caretaker at the group home had been taking the man to an establishment in St. Lucie West.
Police were called about the incident about 1:55 p.m. Monday.
Investigators quickly circulated an image of the Dodge Caravan and of the man who they said absconded with it.
About 4 p.m., police were called by a resident who reported seeing a vehicle matching the description. It was recovered on South Naranja Avenue near Floresta Drive with the 55-year-old man in it unharmed.
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Del Toro said a sergeant saw the surveillance photo of the suspect, and said he thought he'd encountered the man - later identified as Peloquin - earlier in the morning in the area of a gas station on Southwest Port St. Lucie Boulevard.
"He (the sergeant) didn't get the guy's name, but the guy had told him he had an encounter with Florida Highway Patrol the night before," Del Toro said.
The encounter apparently involved a disturbance at a plaza on Florida's Turnpike, and FHP documented the man's name, police said.
Del Toro said an FHP official had dropped off the man at a fast food eatery on Southwest Port St. Lucie Boulevard. That restaurant is across the street from the gas station where the sergeant encountered him.
"Later in the day, he walked northbound on Bayshore Boulevard and stole the vehicle," Del Toro said.
Del Toro said a detective found Peloquin on Facebook and sent him a private message.
"At first the suspect pretended not to know what was going on, what incident he was talking about, wanting to know if the detective was a police officer," Del Toro said.
The detective sent a photo of himself in uniform, and "basically said this isn't a game we need to talk about what happened."
Investigators went to Port Salerno where Peloquin was, and Del Toro said police got a "full confession."
Del Toro said Peloquin expressed remorse.
"He described it as a crime of opportunity, saw the vehicle running did not realize anybody was in the vehicle until he drove north on Bayshore," Del Toro said.
Del Toro said Peloquin pulled off in an area where he thought the vehicle would be noticed. He left it running and went to a nearby Wawa store and got a ride to Port Salerno.
"He didn't intend to steal the vehicle with a person inside of it," Del Toro said. "But he did leave a disabled individual unattended."
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As for the caretaker, Del Toro said he might face criminal consequences.
"He was responsible for a disabled adult, left the gentleman in the vehicle running unattended," Del Toro said. "Going into a liquor store is not what I would consider a stop that has to happen."
Del Toro said Peloquin was trying to find some help from a church that could get him back to New Hampshire.
"He stole the vehicle to drive to this church, and while driving to the church, he realized there's somebody in the back here, and 'this isn't working out the way I thought'," Del Toro said.
Peloquin was held Tuesday in the St. Lucie County Jail on $10,000 bond, according to the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office.
Will Greenlee is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Will on Twitter @OffTheBeatTweet or reach him by phone at 772-267-7926. E-mail him at email@example.com
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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Police arrest New Hampshire man after theft of van with man inside