Was my minivan stolen to commit a violent crime?

Recently, my minivan was stolen near the United Center in Chicago.

I had a hard time accepting this was actually the case. I really wanted to believe it had been towed.

But it wasn’t.

It was a 4 year old Toyota Sienna, locked and alarmed. And still…

For three days after it went missing, I stayed in touch with Chicago Police officers who predicted— correctly — that it would eventually turn up, probably within days.

Sure enough, three days after it disappeared, the van was found, abandoned in an alley, just a three minute drive from where I’d last parked it, legally, on a Chicago city street.

Two cops found it behind a building on Maypole Avenue, then phoned in their discovery. This is what happened after that:

A police dispatcher tries to reach me, but I miss her call by seconds. Immediately, I listen to her voicemail:

“Christina [sic] Wolf, Chicago Police Department calling to let you know we found your car. Ummm… since I’m unable to get a hold of you, we will be towing the vehicle. You’ll be able to find it at the City Pound, located at 701 North Sacramento. Thank you.”

Noooooooo! Wait!

Since the call came in from an unknown number, I can’t even call her back.

Ugh.

I am so frustrated, imagining the additional runaround, the additional lost work time to retrieve it…I mean, my God. I just want to pick up the phone and say, “Hold that car right there. I’ll come and get it!”. But I don’t know how to reach ANYONE.

I sit, dazed, staring at the smartphone in my hand, feeling momentarily helpless, then decide the only thing I can do is ask for help.

First, I call the 12th Precinct of the City of Chicago — from which my car had originally disappeared — and explain that I’m trying to reach the dispatcher who tried to reach me moments ago.

A woman (bless her heart) looks up my police report using my name and phone number, and quickly figures out how to connect me to that dispatcher.

Whew.

Once transferred, my first question is: “Where IS IT?”

“It’s near 1811 West Maypole,” she says.

She sounds like she’s been smoking since she was in the womb.

“It’s blocking a thoroughfare,” she continues. “A squad car’s there now. Whatdya want me to do with it?”

My next question: “Is it driveable?”

She tells me officers found it ransacked and “scratched up”, and that the ignition’s been “ripped out”.

I don’t even know what this means.

The dispatcher tells me I need a tow, and asks where I want my car delivered.

I tell her I need to call my insurance company, and that I’ll call her right back.

This clearly irritates her.

“The guys can’t sit on your car all day,” she says. “If I don’t hear back from ya ‘mediately, I’m havin’ it towed to the City pound. Call me back.”

Lovely.

“How do I do that?” I ask. “Your number came up as unlisted.”

“Call 311 and ask for — ”

“Please, wait,” I interrupt, “I’m not in Chicago. I’m in Evanston.”

“What?” she rasps. “Aw Jeez. Then call 911 and ask to be transferred to Chicago’s Zone 3.”

“Okay. But you’ll answer?” I ask.

“Lady, you gotta lotta questions,” she barks. “Tic toc.”

[okay I may have exaggerated that convo…but that voice begged to be written about]

I call my insurance company — with whom I’ve already filed a stolen car claim — and let them know my van’s been found. I tell them that, among other things, the ignition’s been ripped out.

“That’s great they found it!” says the representative. “We’ll get an adjuster out right away!”

[I am not exaggerating her tone. Omg. She’s like a cheerleader on helium and Mountain Dew.]

She sounds genuinely psyched, and I struggle to keep pace with her mood. Images of strangers ransacking and ripping out my car’s ignition continue to fill my thoughts.

“Where would you like it towed?” the rep asks. “Do you have a preferred body shop?”

Do I have a preferred body shop? Um..hmmm. Why no, I’ve never needed one before. Ummmmm….

At this moment, my colleague tells me about a body shop near her home — a shop she’s used before.

“Ok. Take it to Lakeside Auto Rebuilders,” I tell the rep, shrugging my shoulders.

“Great!” she says. “I’ll arrange to have it towed to the body shop right now!”

Whether the gal lives for moments like this or deals with them all day long, I can’t tell — but her energy and enthusiasm are welcome distractions from an otherwise shitty situation.

I call the dispatcher back and let her know a tow is on the way.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll release it from the system.”

“Will the officers stay with it until the tow truck arrives?” I ask.

“They can’t stay there all day,” she says. “I hope your tow truck drives fast. The cops gotta go and I’d hate to see your car towed for blocking the road.”

Seriously?

I ask, “What do the police do from here?”

[Insert crickets]

“Is anyone investigating this theft?” I ask. “What’s the follow-up?”

“Follow-up?” she asks with a laugh. “There’s no follow-up. The car is yours now. Look. You’re lucky you even got it back.”

My van is delivered to Lakeside Auto Rebuilders, where the owner, Armen, gives it a once-over, then calls me with the details: Dents and scuffs all over, personal contents strewn all about, ignition ripped from the dashboard.

“If you get a chance to drop the key off this weekend,” he says, “I can figure out if we can even start it.”

It’s now Friday, three days after the theft. It will take me two more days before I find the courage to go to the body shop to see my own van. I don’t want to face the reality that someone has been in my space.

I debate asking someone to accompany me and, in the end, decide that I need to face this on my own.

On Sunday, I stop by the body shop by myself, snapping pictures and shaking my head.

Immediately, I can see some of what the thief has done. There are scuffs, dents, dings, scratches and crunched metal on all four sides of the car.

Don’t get me wrong — it could have been worse. Still, it’s my car, and I can see exactly where the thief overshot turns, sideswiped other cars, and tore through every inch of my personal space inside. The interior of my car is in total disarray, and as I stand in the lot of this body shop, so are all my feelings.

I’m relieved. I’m angry. I’m confused. I’m annoyed. I’m disappointed. And, I’m generally sad.

Inside my car, there’d been only two things I’d hoped to find, and thankfully, they’re both there: 1) a pile of papers I’d left on the passenger seat and 2) my grandfather’s St. Christopher medal he’d worn during World War II.

The rest, I’d decided earlier in the week, didn’t matter one bit.

It occurs to me, as I stand here, that I have friends who live just a few blocks away who lost nearly all their possessions in a house fire some years back. This is the perspective I need right now, and as I look at my car, I am reminded that my circumstances are hardly the end of the world.

As I examine the interior of my car, I note what’s still here, as well as what’s gone missing. Gone are my prescription glasses, my makeup, my first aid kit, my insurance card and registration, jumper cables, phone charger, and a bunch of things that can be replaced. These items will all be on my dime, of course, because my insurance coverage only replaces items “attached” to the car.

I also find a huge mess that I’ll have to clean up — spills, debris, trash left behind — not to mention small electrical panels ripped open near the rear power doors.

I wonder why thiefs wanted access to these.

They’ve also left piles of used bandages and medical tape from my first aid kit.

Still here is my half empty bottle of water and, perhaps not surprisingly, the small windup toy that plays a Wizard of Oz classic, “If I Only Had A Brain”. 🙄

It takes the insurance adjuster five days to finally get out to inspect my van.

After he writes up his estimate for what it’ll take to bring it back to the condition it once had been (over $4,000), we speak by phone.

I, of course, have numerous questions, the most pressing of which has nothing to do with the estimate. I want to know why this happened in the first place.

I explain that the auto body shop owner wondered if the van had merely been towed and made to look like a theft.

“Do you think that’s even possible?” I ask the insurance adjuster, ever hopeful.

“No way,” he says. His name is Sam.

“How can you be so sure?” I ask. I still, STILL don’t want to believe someone stole my car.

“Why would someone want to take a MINIVAN?” I ask. “I don’t get it. What’s the appeal?”

“You probably don’t want to hear this,” the adjuster says, “but it was probably stolen to commit a violent crime.”

“Wait. Violent crime?” I ask.

“Yep,” he says.

“What do you mean? Like….?”

“Like shooting people from the wide open rear doors. Like pulling people inside from inside the open doors. Like using it for a smash and grab. They can haul more (and bigger) stuff with a van. It’s those sliding rear doors they really want. They make it so much easier to commit these crimes.”

I sit in my living room in silence.

Please, don’t let something like that have happened.

Apparently, minivans have long been hot commodities for thieves.

According to Tracey A. Reeve’s 1999 Washington Post column titled “Minivans Have Thief Appeal”, the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager were just behind the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord — and just ahead of the Nissan Maxima, Jeep Cherokee and Acura Legend — in local auto theft stats. Moreover, according to the Illinois-based National Insurance Crime Bureau, 1999 was the first year a minivan was in the top 10 types of stolen cars.

“People have this false sense of security that because they drive a minivan, their vehicle won’t be stolen,” said one law enforcement official in the aforementioned column. “They don’t know how desirable their vehicle is to the car thief.”

And as my insurance adjuster told me that afternoon, “A thief’s a lot less conspicuous in your four-year-old van than in a newer, zippier, sportier car.”

And as it turns out, my denial was not at all uncommon.

In Tracey A. Craig’s WashPo piece on minivan thefts, she shares another victim’s perspective: “‘At first I was shocked. Then I went into denial,’ said Barry Craig. ‘I thought I had parked it somewhere else and forgot. I never thought anyone would take my minivan.’”

Armen, the body shop owner, asks if I’d like to order parts for my car. He tells me he won’t have time to work on it for another month.

I now have some decisions to make. Do I keep the car and make the repairs? Do I make some of the repairs and then sell it? Do I just screw the repairs altogether and sell the van “as is”?

Armen hands me the ignition — the one thief ripped out of my car, the one I’ve paid Armen to replace so I can at least drive my van home. It’s clear the thief used a tool and applied it with force, snapping the start button off to gain control of my vehicle.

I turn these broken pieces in my hand, wondering what possibly goes through someone’s mind as they crack through the boundary of another’s space.

Probably not much, I realize. They’ve left all the thinking entirely to me.

I want to ask the thief:

Did you commit a violent crime with my van?
Was it you who used those bandages?
Or did you use them for someone else in my car?
Were you desperate?
Indignant?
Or just messing around?

Why did you try to disable my power doors? Armen just showed me that you weren’t successful, you jerk.

Why did you you disable my interior lights?
All the better to operate inside without being noticed?
What didn’t you want people to see?

And then, if I could say one more thing to the thief, it would be this:

I noticed everything you did. I noticed every scratch you left, every dent you made, every thing you took, and every scrap you left behind. You may never see my face and I’ll probably never see yours, but believe me, I see you…you lurking, cowardly human being.

I see you. And I feel so sorry for you.

While my insurance adjuster said there’s always a chance the van was dumped without incident, I know in my heart that I’ll always wonder.

For now, I keep hoping to hear someone say “We’re sorry to have to tell you this, Christine, but this has all been just an unbelievable mixup…”

Writing Coach. Journalist. Author. Marathoner. Lover of emotions, words & spicy nachos. Find me on Twitter & Insta @tinywolf1, and at www.christinewolf.com

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