Oscar's great adventure has ended in the most unlikely of places: a dumpster in one of L.A.'s seedier sections.

Crates containing at least 52 of the 55 statuettes swiped from a Southern California loading dock a week ago were discovered last night by a dumpster diver in trash bins behind a 24-hour supermarket and coin-op laundromat.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles police announced today that arrests have been made in connection with the Oscar heist. Two (now former) employees with Roadway Express, the shipping company that lost the little golden guys back on March 10, are charged with stealing the statuettes and subsequently dumping in the bins. More details are expected later today.

The man of the moment is Willie Fulgear, 61, who ekes out a living salvaging and recycling garbage. He was fishing through trash in the Koreatown area about 9:30 p.m. Sunday when he made the surprising find--literally stumbling upon the cache of gold-plated prizes. "My foot hit one. It was heavy and I opened it up...Everybody knows who Oscar is," he said.

He crammed the Oscar-filled boxes in the trunk of his car and raced to his apartment. Fulgear, who said he had not heard the Oscars were missing, then contacted his 22-year-old son to help him find out what they were doing in the trash. It was his son who called the cops.

According to local broadcast reports, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confirmed Fulgear's salvage work did indeed turn up the real thing: A special mark on each of the 8 1/2 pound, 13 1/2 inch trophies proved their authenticity.

While it's unlikely the Oscars will be returned in time for the March 26 ceremony (they're evidence in a massive investigation, after all), the recovered statuettes were apparently in mint condition, most still in their packing material.

Police say Fulgear was questioned and released and may now be eligible for the $50,000 reward posted by Roadway Express. No comment yet from Roadway or the Academy.

When asked what he would do with the reward, Fulgear says he wants out of his one-room apartment and may buy a house.

And if he doesn't get the money, the now-famous Fulgear still had, however briefly, something most Tinseltown types never sniff: "I have more Oscars than any of the movie stars."

(ORIGINALLY POSTED 3/20/00 at 7:45 a.m. PT)

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