In 1970 Bob Russell and his future bride Cynthia were students at Philadelphia’s Temple University. He’d had a 1967 Austin Healey for a couple of years and Cynthia and Bob went on their first two dates with the car. The morning following their second date, though, Russell left his apartment and discovered that his British roadster had been stolen. He filed a police report and the two of them went on with their lives. Bob became a sales manager and Cynthia an English teacher. He’s had other fun cars, a vintage Corvette and a Porsche 911, but Russell never gave up hope of finding his stolen car. He’d stop and check the VIN of every Austin Healey that he’d see parked on the side of the road. When the Internet came along, he checked forums, and for sale sites like eBay regularly, looking for a Healey with the correct VIN. His wife called it “dogged sleuthing”. Finally, a couple of months ago Russell, now retired in Texas, found his car listed for sale on eBaymotors. A California dealer named the Beverly Hills Car Club was selling the car. According to the description, it had been owned by a single family since 1970, the same year Russell’s car was stolen. The dealer didn’t know it was a stolen car so it’s possible that the family that sold it didn’t either. Perhaps the thief flipped the car as soon as they stole it. Fortunately for Russell the car never met the auction reserve on eBay and he started negotiating with the dealer. At first they offered to sell him the car for $24,000, saying that there was no proof that the car was stolen in the first place. They had a point. It wasn’t showing up on any law enforcement databases and Russell had long ago lost his copy of the stolen vehicle police report he’d filed in Philly.
Eventually the Russells were reunited with their car, and while the Russells and news reports credit “creative police work“, the simple fact is that the Los Angeles and Philadelphia police departments made it harder and more expensive for Russell to get his car back, not easier. Russell is thrilled to have his car back and not have to litigate, so he’s happy, but it seems to me that the police were less than helpful and in part actively hindered Russell’s recovery of his property.
After trying to work things out with the dealer, Russell turned to the LAPD. The told him that they couldn’t do anything to help him because the National Crime Information Center had no record of his police report. Nothing was coming up when they entered the VIN that Russell supplied from the copy of the title to the Austin Healey that he had saved. It turns out that someone, either at the Philadelphia police or the FBI, had entered the car’s VIN incorrectly.
Since it was not listed as an active stolen car, the LAPD refused to recover it, title or not. Russell turned to the Philadelphia police department. While one can indeed characterize their work as “creative”, it seems to me that they were at least as interested in protecting the image of the Philly PD as they were in protecting Mr. Russell’s property rights. Someone in the Philadelphia police department’s IT division was able to locate a Teletype report about the stolen sports car in the archives. That document, though, was not sufficient for the LAPD, which refused to act unless the car’s VIN was active in the FBI’s database.
So what’s the problem? Just reenter the car’s VIN as a stolen car in the database. Unfortunately the Philadelphia police were reluctant to do so. Why? Entering the car as a new case would get tabulated as a 2012 crime and the Philly police didn’t want their current stats dinged just to help someone retrieve their demonstrably stolen and now rather collectible car. Enter Philly police Lt. Fred McQuiggan who came up with a way of putting the Healey in the FBI database without adding to his city’s 2012 crime count. McQuiggan’s solution was appropriately bureaucratic in light of the Catch-22 treatment that Russell had been getting, he invented a new category: “re-entered stolen vehicle” and entered the VIN into the FBI’s database.
Now that the PPD and the LAPD had their posteriors properly protected, the LAPD impounded the car and told Russell that he could now pick up his car. The badged bureaucrats, though, still hadn’t finished making the Russell’s recovery of their car difficult. Bob and Cynthia drove to Los Angeles on June 16th where the LAPD presented them with a bill for approximately $600 for impound fees. After all, the car belonged to Russell and it had been impound, though one might think that when a stolen vehicle is impounded from a licensed car dealership that the dealer would be responsible for the impound fees, not the legitimate owner. Again, Russell thinks it a small price to pay to get his beloved Brit roadster back.
Actually, that 600 bucks was a fraction of Russell’s expenses. They also had to pay $800 to ship the car to their home near Dallas, plus six days of travel and lodging costs for the trip to LA to get the car.
“We were probably out $1,500 plus six days of travel and hotel costs,” Russell said. “I’m not complaining about any of that. I couldn’t get the credit card out of my pocket fast enough.”
Russell’s equanimity is admirable, the actions of the Los Angeles and Philadelphia police departments were not. To be honest, I would think those PDs would have rushed to get Mr. Russell his Austin Healey. After all, they could have used the case to pad their “solved crimes” stats.