The lost car chronicles

I knew that it would be cold overnight, so I parked my car in the garage. It’s crowded in there, though, so in the morning I decided to move it out into the driveway. This would give me to space put my four year old in his car seat so my wife could take him to school.

I popped back inside to help my son get his coat and shoes on. A few minutes later we started out the door. “Do you have the keys?” my wife asked. “They’re in the car,” I began to answer, but stopped abruptly. The car was not in the driveway anymore.

I stared, open-mouthed, at the spot where it had been, then looked across the street. I was half expecting to see it wrecked in the neighbor’s yard - maybe I’d failed to put on the parking brake and it had rolled into a tree? But it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

I almost laughed aloud. It was like some prankster had enlisted David Copperfield to make my car disappear. Good one - you got me! Feeling lightheaded, I went back inside and into the garage. Maybe I’d hallucinated moving the car? Or maybe I’d absentmindedly moved it into the driveway and then right back in? It didn’t seem likely to be the case, and it wasn’t.

“Someone stole our car!” I said, finally. “Oh, no…” my wife murmured. “Someone stole our car!” yelled my son. “Grr!” (he sometimes growls when he’s angry)

In some sense I fucked up big time: leaving the car unlocked and unattended was an unforced error. But in my defense, it wasn’t for very long: according to my phone (which was Bluetooth-paired to the car), I took it out of the garage at 06:56 and called 911 at 07:06. Given that I spent a few minutes wandering around in disbelief, the window of opportunity for the thieves was pretty narrow.

It never even crossed my mind to be vigilant on my sleepy suburban street. But I spent the rest of the day being told how common this sort of thing was:

Responding police officer: Yep, this happens every cold day. Somebody leaves their car out in the driveway to warm up, thieves hop in and drive it away a minute later.

Locksmith: Yeah, bummer. I see this all the time. Car is warming up in the driveway, somebody steals it with the house keys in it. They call me and I change their locks.

Rental car office clerk: I got two calls just like this from insurance companies right after yours.

I emailed my neighbors to (a) let them know to never unlock their cars, and (b) see if anybody saw something. One guy down the street said he noticed a Suspicious Dark Acura (this will come up again later) stop near my house, but didn’t think to note anything beyond that.

The detective assigned to my case let me know that a license plate reader had seen my car speeding away shortly after being taken, but had not been observed since. I passed on the information about the Suspicious Dark Acura and then waited.

We don’t really need two cars: as of the COVID-19 pandemic, I work from home. But when you live in a single-car household, there’s always a “who has the car / who needs the car” process constantly running in your head. My insurance paid for part a rental car, which helped, but I quickly learned that another relevant consideration is “who has the car seat?” My son’s had been in the stolen car.

Another issue with changing your Family Car Configuration is that it disrupts all your habits. My two cars fit into the garage in a certain way; I could put them in with my eyes closed. But the rental car was shaped differently, so one evening I found myself clipping the trash bins while parking. I stopped, planned a different approach, and backed up… into the closing garage door.

Thankfully the impact didn’t damage my remaining car or the rental, but now the garage door refused to close automatically. I shouted swear words for a while, and managed to un-twist various pieces of metal enough to get things shut up manually. But the episode left my pride (and my left hand) rather bruised.

Later, when the garage door technician came, I explained what happened. He said “Oh, car stolen out of your driveway when warming up? Yeah, happens all the time!” Thanks, guy. He took pity on me and charged me the minimum service fee.

I didn’t really hear much for a while. The insurance company promised to send me a bunch of forms, but kept forgetting to do it. I kept hoping the police would call me and tell me they’d found the car in perfect condition, delivering meals to hungry orphans, or something, but the phone never rang.

Then a neighbor emailed me to say that somebody on the NextDoor app had posted something interesting. Evidently somebody a few neighborhoods over had seen a Suspicious Dark Acura drop off some people who broke into their garage and tried to steal their car. They even had a doorbell camera of the car in question.

Feeling like Ryo Hazuki, I gathered this information and sent it to the detective. I gently asked about whether there had been any developments, and he gently let me know that there hadn’t and probably wouldn’t be.

My son wasn’t so gentle. One afternoon at his preschool, a police officer stopped by and talked to the kids. He asked if they wanted to see him turn on his lights, and they all said “Yeah!” except for my son:

Son: Did you find our car???

Officer: (blank look)

Son: My blanket was in there!

Officer: Uhh… (glances at preschool teacher for help)

Teacher: (shrugs)

Son: When are you going to find it? Grr!

(That last growl may or may not have happened. I got the story third hand. But it's plausible.)

It was almost two weeks later when I got a letter in the mail. I retrieved it from the mailbox in the evening and opened it, puzzled. Why would the police department be sending me a letter? It said, more or less:

Dear Bo,

We have retrieved your stolen 2004 Saturn Vue, license plate 2HOP260.

Please come collect it at YOLO Towing Company, 618-555-0155. You will be charged $99.50 for each day it stays on the lot.


The Police

I was elated and then… really puzzled. My car was not a 2004 Saturn Vue. That’s not even close to what my car was. I tried calling the towing company, but evidently they only answered phones between the hours of 10:00 and 11:00 on alternate Wednesdays. I tried calling the police and explaining my situation, but they were baffled:

Me: Listen, this is weird, but my car was stolen and then I got this letter…

Officer: Your car was stolen? OK, I’ll come take a report.

Me: No, wait, this was weeks ago. The letter said that you’d retrieved the car!

Officer: So what’s the problem?

Me: (explains)

Officer: Uhhh, maybe try calling the towing company?

I recruited my mechanically-gifted friend to drive me to the towing company to investigate. We drove across the river to where Google Maps said the towing company was. There was a nondescript building in front of a lot with a bunch of busted up cars, so we figured this was the place.

We walked to the door, knocked, and waited for someone to let us in. This took a while - eventually somebody noticed us and opened the door to some sort of break room. I brandished my paperwork and started asking how I could retrieve my car, and the people looked at me like I was an alien.

My friend, who had been scanning the room, announced “I think we’re in the wrong place.” The people agreed, telling me that this was the dispatch office for a garbage truck fleet. The towing company operated out of the body shop next door, which had an entirely different name. Of course.

We tried again next door, and I launched into my spiel again. Good news - my car was in the lot! One of the employees took me to it, warning me that it had a nasty dent on the back bumper on the way. He was understating things - one of the back panels was practically falling off. But that was the only visible damage.

I got in the car and was hit with a terrible mixture of smells. The primary component was cigarillos. The secondary component was marijuana. The third component was pine needles. The interior was a mess. There was spilled food and drink on the seats, half-empty soda bottles rolling around on the floor, and plenty of cigarillo wrappers. Evidently the thieves had used the cup holders as ash trays. And either they’d transported a Christmas tree or run into a pine tree, because there were pine needles strewn throughout the back.

The towing company expected me to pay them in cash for multiple days' storage, which felt a bit like getting robbed a second time. Once it was liberated, my friend re-attached the back panel (it was a good choice to bring him along) and we headed back where we’d come from.

The car smelled so bad that I took it directly to get detailed. I tried to get the clerk to understand the gravity of the situation:

Me: Whatever the best service you have is, I want that.

The clerk: We have a super package, a deluxe package...

Me: I want the super deluxe. The most deluxe.

Her: Well if you go with the deluxe package...

Me: Can I get all the packages? I want them all.

Her: ...

Me: Like I want what the owner's mother-in-law gets. I don't care what it costs.

They did a remarkably good job on the exterior - aside from the dent, the car looked great. But the interior was a different story. They’d vacuumed out the trash, the ashes, the pine needles, etc. But I could still practically taste cigarillos when I was in there.

Somebody suggested baking soda. My wife proposed coffee grounds. My sister sent me an air purifier. A few friends mentioned ozone generators. One guy said to unbolt the seats and steam clean every surface (I was hoping this would be included in the super-deluxe detailing package, but alas).

The low-tech options didn’t do much. The air purifier sort of took the edge off after running for a couple of days. I ordered an ozone generator, and it improved things substantially, but it didn’t come close to eliminating the odor. I left the windows down for a while, but this just made my garage smell like really bad marijuana.

As of this writing, driving the car is mostly tolerable, but it still seems like somebody smoked Swisher Sweets in it every day for the last decade. And the car is only five years old.

OK, so I shouldn’t have left the car unattended, even if it was for a few minutes. Lesson learned. But I still think the punishment - months of hassle - didn’t quite fit the crime. And between the rental car, house locks, car locks, car seat, car cleaning, anti-smell technology, and dent repair, I’ll be out a few thousand dollars.

I do hold out some hope that the thieves will be caught. The day I got my car back, a Suspicious Dark Acura was seen on a nearby street where several cars were broken into one morning (why aren’t they using the stolen cars for these missions?). I don’t care if they go to jail, but I hope they get stuck in a really smelly place for a while.