It’s the mid-’90s and Fernando Rodriguez’s friend stops by with a pair of statues. They’d be perfect for watching the door of the family restaurant, Gilbert’s El Indio, Rodriguez thinks, and he buys one for $800: a Native American, chin turned proudly up, in a feathered headdress.

For two decades, kids, their parents, teenagers, and seniors take photos with the statue, its marble eye watching them, before they head inside for pickled carrots or a super mule burrito.

Fast forward to 2015, the Friday before Cinco de Mayo. Fernando’s mother, Carmen, the owner of the restaurant, is heading into the Gilbert’s at 7 a.m.

Something’s missing. The door-watcher is gone. El Indio Perdido. The Lost Indian.

Customers start to notice his absence, too. Cinco de Mayo isn’t the same without him. Fernando calls his pastor, who agrees to give a blessing. Fernando’s son, Andres Rodriguez, puts a call out on Gilbert’s Facebook page, not expecting much.

The restaurant’s 4,500 followers are incensed. The post is shared rapidly and ultimately viewed more than 30,000 times, Andres said.

Enter Thaddeus Warth. Thaddeus has been finding lost things — purses, wallets, money — since he was a kid. Maybe it’s luck or maybe it’s the way he sees the world.

Thad has a theory: “I think God trusts me. Coincidence is God’s way of keeping his anonymity.”

As a grade-schooler, he and his father, Dart, who passed a few months ago, spent a day tracking down the owner of wallet they’d found with $21 inside.

Thaddeus, a Santa Monica resident and longtime Gilbert’s customer, saw Andres’ post.

“It was funny,” he said, “because I said: Either a fraternity prank or high school prank or at a cigar lounge.”

Thaddeus is a cigar manufacturer. He’s the COO of Hermosa Cigars. He routinely ducks into cigar shops all over Los Angeles County. On Thursday, he ducks into a West L.A. cigar lounge, chats with an employee, buys a cigar, smokes it, plays a lottery ticket, wins $50 and walks back to the counter to get paid.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I look over and said, ‘Wait a minute,” Thaddeus said.

He calls over his buddy George, pointing to a statue in the back of the lounge.

George: “Yeah? So?”

Thaddeus: “Dude, that’s from Gilbert’s, bro.”

George: “That’s not it.”

Thaddeus smells wet paint. He pulls out his phone, checks the Facebook post.

“Dude, that’s it,” he said. “It’s just been painted.”

Thaddeus calls Gilbert’s. He used to play baseball with some of the Rodriguez family.

Fernando swings by the lounge. He smells the paint, sees the marble eye. He haggles with the lounge owner, who said he bought it off the back of a truck with Arizona license plates for $180. Fernando gives him $90 in restaurant certificates — a 50-50loss. Two weeks after he disappeared, El Indio Perdido is home, watching the family restaurant.

Neither the Rodriguez family nor Thaddeus waswilling to name the cigar lounge; the former said itwants to keep the story positive, and the latter fears retribution against the owner, with whom he is a friend.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Andres Rodriguez. “It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to look out for the restaurant. We had the whole city looking for him. He’s a part of the restaurant’s tradition, and we want to keep that tradition going.”

El Indio Perdido is sitting outside of Gilbert’s El Indio, which has been open for 41 years, on Pico Boulevard by 26th Street.

dave@www.smdp.com

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