Air Force

Retired Colonel Reunited With Long-Lost Tuskegee Airman Statue

A routine traffic stop led to the big discovery of a retired U.S. Air Force member's bronze facial statue that had been missing for the past 14 years.

The priceless bust was returned to 82-year-old Col. Ralph Smith on Sunday after deputies with the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department pulled over a man for a minor traffic violation on April 7. That routine traffic stop led to an investigation into the man's home, where the statue was discovered.

"I thought it was gone and I'd never see it again," Smith said.

Rancho Cucamonga Police Department
The bronze bust depicting retired airman Col. Ralph Smith.

Well-known sculptor Don Winton made the bust in 2003 for Smith, and another one for his wife, in recognition for their military service. Smith believes he lost the statues when his wife died and there was a dispute over her property.

The bust depicts Smith's face and is engraved with his name and the words "Tuskegee Airman" on it.

The Moreno Valley resident is retired from the Air Force and served in several tours. The famous Tuskegee Airmen was a unit of the U.S. Air Force that was composed primarily of the African-American pilots who fought in World War II and Smith is part of a foundation that preserves their legacy.

"Rarely do we have an opportunity to bring something that's been missing from someone for 14 years, let alone an American hero," said Det. Jacob Bailey of Rancho Cucamonga police. "This is something that, as a police department, we are beside ourselves."

When deputies with the Victoria Gardens Retail Theft Team conducted the traffic stop, they discovered 24-year-old Brian Sawyer was on felony probation and driving without a license. They decided to search his car, where they found methamphetamine, heroin, a loaded handgun and ammunition.

That led into an investigation into Sawyer's Fontana home, where deputies found another firearm, drug paraphernalia, more ammunition -- and the bust.

Deputy Daniel Lopez found the bronze likeness and immediately did the research to find its owner.

Smith was presented with the statue Sunday in a small ceremony at the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department.

"The emotional reunification with Col. Smith and his piece of American history was worth every second I spent on this investigation," Lopez said.

Sawyer was arrested and booked into the West Valley Detention Center on charges of possessing drugs, firearms and stolen property. His bail was set at $50,000. Sawyer posted a bail bond Sunday and is currently out of custody.

Smith said he'll be attending the court proceedings for Sawyer to see if he can figure out where the statue has been for the past 14 years.

Anyone with information regarding this incident, or any other crime Sawyer may be involved in, should contact the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department at (909) 477-2800 or submit anonymous tips through the We-Tip Hotline at 1-800-78CRIME (27463).

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