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Petaluma man reunited with treasured photo after burglary

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When the woman handed Doug Silva the photo, she wasn’t expecting him to breakdown into tears.

What the woman didn’t know was that Silva had lost this treasured photo just days before in an apparent burglary.

It’s a portrait of his parents, Robert and Veana Silva, taken the day after they were married on Sept. 28, 1955, at a studio in Reno, Nev. It’s from one of the happiest times in their lives, and now it’s one of the only photos of them he has left.

“He’s just in tears because this brought up an open wound,” said the woman who found the photo. She requested to remain anonymous, citing safety and privacy concerns surrounding the burglary.

Doug Silva’s storage unit at the Public Storage on Transport Way was burglarized sometime last month. He’s not sure exactly when it happened, but estimated he lost between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of his most cherished possessions.

Attempts to reach the Public Storage district manager for details and policies regarding theft were unsuccessful. The Petaluma Police Department confirmed the case is active, and officers are “following up to see if there’s any surveillance cameras,” Lt. Tim Lyons said.

The woman found the photo one afternoon when she was wheeling her trash bins back into her driveway in east Petaluma. It was on the ground, folded down the middle.

After emailing the photo to some colleagues, she learned that it belonged to Silva, an acquaintance of hers. It was one of the numerous items that were stored in the boxes taken from him. Later, once she became aware of the burglary, she realized it meant one of her neighbors might be the culprit.

A few days after finding the photo, she was at her downtown office and looked out the window at the volunteers setting up for Petaluma’s Salute to American Graffiti. She spotted Silva on the sidewalk and ran out to give him the photo in what quickly became an emotional exchange.

“I remember putting this picture in a box when I moved out of my house,” said Silva, a resident at the Windsor Care Center. “It meant the world to get it back.”

Silva is a historian and a collector of antiques. For decades he’s sought out gas pump plates, vintage signs, and old-fashioned automobile relics that evoke black-and-white images of a more romantic era in American driving. He also collects Petaluma artifacts, numerous printed works and even had a Zenith tube radio.

There was always a sentimental value attached to each thing Silva found. Some items reminded him of specific people in his life at that time. Others he associated with a precise memory depending on when and where he found it.

But many of those items are gone now — including many family treasures that would have little value to anyone outside the Silva family.

“That was the last of the stuff I had from them,” he said.

Silva is a third-generation Petaluman, born in 1965 and raised in Two Rock Valley, west of Petaluma. He grew up on the Harry Silva & Son dairy farm and has fond memories of all the time he spent in Tomales, attending high school in the small-town community.

He said something like this would never happen in Tomales, and fights back tears every time he thinks about losing his “pride and joy.” Quickly, however, that sadness turns to anger.

“I’m sick to my stomach about this,” Silva said. “Every time I open my door up I want to scream.”

It’s been a rough few years for Silva. His mother died of cancer in April 2014 at the very same nursing home he lives in now. Six months later, he lost his older brother to a heart attack. Last October, his 17-year-old niece committed suicide.

With a burglary to add the list of rocky times, Silva said he’s “going to die of a broken heart.”

There’s a part of him that’s optimistic he might be able to recover the things he lost. Despite his limitations as an amputee, Silva is doing all he can to spread the word, hoping his iconic signs and family heirlooms might turn up just like his parents’ wedding photo.

“I just want my stuff back,” he said. “No questions asked.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)