Maria Carrillo stepped outside the back door of her office to walk her two dogs one evening when she noticed a plastic fast-food bag had been dumped on her property.
When she picked up the McDonald’s bag, it felt heavy and she thought there might be a rock inside.
She opened it and saw an object gleaming in the middle of the crinkled hamburger wrappers and empty french-fry boxes. It looked exactly like an Olympic gold medal.
She pulled it out and saw the words “Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020,” as well as the five Olympic rings and the Greek goddess Nike.
“My first thought was, ‘This is so beautiful — is it for real?’ ” she said about her June 27 discovery.
The discarded medal and the red, white and blue ribbon attached to it were in excellent condition, Carrillo said.
She phoned her husband, Noe Hernandez, 49, who runs Noel Barber Shop nearby, and he told her that the medal was likely fake. Carrillo decided to hurry over to his shop so he could see it. To her, it looked real.
“Noe has a friend who works for the police department, and it turned out he was coming in for a haircut,” Carrillo said. “As soon as [the officer] saw it, he told my husband it was real and that it had been stolen.”
“We were like, ‘Oh my God, this is really somebody’s Olympic gold,’ ” added Hernandez.
Police checked their files and told the couple that the gold medal belonged to Jordyn Poulter, the starting setter of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Volleyball Team. On May 25, she had reported it stolen from her car while it was parked in her garage in Anaheim.
Poulter said she had mistakenly left it there one day after she had been carrying it around with her to show it to friends.
Poulter and her teammates won the medal in the Summer Olympics after they beat longtime rival Brazil, and took home Olympic gold for the first time in the team’s history.
“People are curious about it and like to touch it and see how heavy it is,” Poulter said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was my way of sharing the medal with anyone who feels connected to sports or Team USA.”
On the day it was stolen, Poulter said she accidentally left her car unlocked and someone had taken the medal and a few other items from the center console.
“I’d forgotten to take it out of the car,” she said. “When I saw it had been stolen, I felt instant regret. I also felt stupid for not locking the door.”
“I thought my medal was long gone,” Poulter added. “I made peace with the fact that I’d probably never see it again.”
Many people assume that Olympic medals are made of solid gold, Poulter said, but that isn’t the case.
“At the Tokyo Games, because it was the most sustainable games, they used recycled computer parts and smartphones to create the inside of the medals, then plated them in gold,” she said.
The Games had actually been held in July 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the International Olympic Committee kept 2020 on all of the Tokyo medals and merchandise.
Poulter, who has played volleyball since age 7, said it was a lifelong dream to stand on the Olympic podium and feel the weight of a gold medal around her neck.
“To me, my medal was priceless,” she said.
About two weeks after the break-in, Anaheim police arrested a suspect in the theft, but they were unable to recover Poulter’s medal. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged Jordan Fernandez, 31, with vehicle burglary and other offenses on June 7. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on July 8.
Carrillo said she and her husband had not heard any news reports that the medal had been stolen, which is why they were stunned when they learned it was real. Carrillo said they wondered if somebody might have discarded it behind her business after trying to sell it at the pawnshop next door.
A gold medal from the Tokyo Games is estimated to have a value of about $812, but Carrillo said she knew the sentimental value was much higher.
“It’s the highlight of an athlete’s life,” she said.
“We wanted to do the right thing and get it back to this young athlete who had worked so much of her life to compete at the Olympics and win a gold medal,” she added.
Police are still investigating how the medal ended up behind Carrillo’s business.
“We celebrate the good deed that this couple did in coming forward,” said Sgt. Shane Carringer, spokesperson for the Anaheim Police Department. “An Olympic medal would be extremely hard to sell, and it’s really of the most value to the person who won it.”
Carrillo put the medal around her neck to see what it would feel like to wear Olympic gold, she said. But it never crossed her mind to keep it.
“I came to this country from Mexico 30 years ago and cleaned houses to earn enough money to start my own business,” she said. “I know what it is like to work hard to achieve a dream. The person who lost this medal deserved to have it back.”
Poulter said she was in Canada for a volleyball tournament when she learned that her medal had been found. As soon as she returned to Anaheim on July 5, she stopped by the police department to pick it up.
“I hardly have words to express my gratitude to this couple for turning it in,” she said. “In the next couple of weeks, I want to go over there and thank them in person.”
She said she plans to give Carrillo and Hernandez a $1,000 reward for doing the right thing.
“It’s crazy that it was stolen and crazy how it was found,” said Poulter. “But I’m really happy to have it back.”
She will never again leave her Olympic gold in the car, she said.
“I’m thinking I’ll send [the medal] home to my parents’ house in Denver and let them look after it,” said Poulter.
As for Carrillo, she said she won’t look at a bag of trash in quite the same way again.
“When you think of all the places it could have ended up, I’m glad it ended up here,” she said.