At the Home of Dr. Seuss, the Mystery of the Missing Lorax Takes an Unexpected Turn
A statue of the Lorax disappeared from the home of Audrey Geisel, widow of children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
By MIRIAM JORDAN CONNECT
Oct. 23, 2013 10:30 p.m. ET
If you look deep enough you can still see, today,
Where the Lorax once stood
Just as long as it could
Before somebody lifted the Lorax away.
—from “The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss
LA JOLLA, Calif.—On March 26, 2012, San Diego detective Meryl Bernstein received a call that a 200-pound statue of a storybook character had disappeared from the home of Audrey Geisel, widow of children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
Detective Sergeant Bernstein rushed to the hilltop estate, thinking, “We gotta find him. Who steals from Dr. Seuss?”
The “him” was a bronze rendering of the Lorax, a mustachioed creature who “speaks for the trees” in “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss’s 1971 classic about environmental harm and corporate greed.
“We wanted that little Lorax back where he belonged,” says Dr. Seuss’s stepdaughter, Lark Dimond-Cates, a sculptor who made the statue. “He meant the world to my mother.”
Ms. Dimond-Cates sculpted the Lorax and several other Dr. Seuss characters for a memorial garden in the author’s hometown of Springfield, Mass. In 2002, her mother asked her to make a second Lorax. Mrs. Geisel placed it in a garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean and within sight of the studio where Dr. Seuss wrote the book.
Instead of the fanciful Truffula Trees the literary Lorax tried to preserve, the 2-foot-tall sculpture stood beneath a pine—a tree that inspired the one Dr. Seuss drew for his Horton the elephant character to sit on in another book.
“For 10 years, the Lorax was very happy on the point,” Ms. Dimond-Cates says. A property caretaker routinely carried a bucket and sponge down the path to give the Lorax a bath. Each Christmas, the Lorax got a red bow. In the fall, a pumpkin was placed at his feet.
Mrs. Geisel derived joy from seeing it each morning, her daughter says. But it wasn’t otherwise visible, except from an adjacent empty lot.
When Sgt. Bernstein arrived at the gold-hued Spanish-style house to investigate, she told the widow how sorry she was that the Lorax had been “stolen.”
“Oh, it wasn’t stolen,” replied Mrs. Geisel, who was then 90 years old. “Somebody lifted the Lorax away.”
It wasn’t until Sgt. Bernstein bought a copy of “The Lorax” that she understood Mrs. Geisel was quoting from the book. What’s more, the story’s first drawing depicts a winding road that resembled the one leading to the Geisel residence.
“We freaked out when we realized it was called ‘The Street of the Lifted Lorax,’ ” says Sgt. Bernstein, leafing recently through the book she carries in her car. “I thought, if I read to the end of the book, we’d solve the crime.”
There were few leads. Marks showing the statue had been dragged along the ground stopped abruptly at a road. Neighbors had no information.
At first, Sgt. Bernstein thought the theft might be a prank connected to the release weeks earlier of “The Lorax,” an animated movie.
Her team questioned workers who had been installing a security system on the property. They passed polygraph tests. The online bulletin board Crime Stoppers offered a tip about a yard jammed with statues—100 of them in all, but no Lorax.
“We decided the statue had been melted down for the metal,” says Captain Brian Ahearn, Sgt. Bernstein’s boss. Two months later, he “inactivated” the case.
Still, he recalls, “the Lorax never left our collective memory.”
When a vacationing Sgt. Bernstein checked into a Denver hotel, for instance, she received a room keycard with a picture of the Lorax on it, advertising the film. She sent a picture of the card to her captain, asking, “Isn’t this a sign?”
The break came this August, in Bozeman, Mont., where Detective Robert Vanuka had sought peace and quiet after toiling for years in southern California. He recalls, “my sergeant walks in and says, ‘I have a great one for you in the lobby.’ ”
Mr. Vanuka escorted a clean-cut 22-year-old in a Hawaiian T-shirt and flip-flops to an interview room. “I’d like to report that I have stolen the Lorax,” he says the man told him.
“I asked him, ‘What do you mean? The movie? The DVD?’ ”
“He’s like, ‘No, I went into the home of Geisel and took the Lorax statue.’ ”
The man, who was from La Jolla, explained that in a drunken stupor on his 21st birthday, it was he who had lifted the Lorax. He hoisted the statue over a chain-link fence, dragged it to his car and put it in his trunk. But overcome by guilt moments later, he rolled the Lorax down a ravine less than a mile from the Geisel house.
The detective said it wasn’t clear why the man chose to confess in Montana. “Having worked in California, I am no stranger to bizarre things,” Mr. Vanuka says.
He reached Sgt. Bernstein, who recalls promising her detectives “the most expensive lunch in La Jolla if they found the Lorax.”
Detective Gregg Goodman got on the phone with the suspect, using Google GOOG -0.16% Earth to help plot the Lorax’s route.
Mr. Goodman and a colleague combed the canyon for about an hour on Aug. 16. No sign. On Aug. 21, he returned with Sgt. Bernstein and three other detectives with rappelling ropes.
After an hour of searching through brittle shrubs, they had begun to pack up, when Mr. Goodman made an elementary deduction.
“If the guy was drunk, maybe he was off by a few feet,” he remembers thinking. He took one last look, further along the road. There, resting on its side under a bush, was the Lorax.
When Sgt. Bernstein heard Mr. Goodman yell, she says, “I had never been as thrilled on the job. Then I remembered I had to take them all to lunch.”
The detectives gave the statue a bath before returning it. Mrs. Geisel decided not to press charges. Neither she nor the prankster would comment for this article.
“He’s home. He’s safe,” says Ms. Dimond-Cates, Mrs. Geisel’s daughter. “We won’t have him on the point anymore.”
Now, the Lorax stands in an undisclosed spot, beneath the gaze of a security camera, atop a stump with a plaque engraved, “Unless.” That is the word of warning the Lorax left before lifting away from a land denuded of Truffula Trees.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,” Dr. Seuss wrote, “nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Write to Miriam Jordan at email@example.com