Quest to retrieve a stolen car hits the speed bumps of bureaucracy

SPINNING WHEELS AT THE IMPOUND LOT A

August 01, 1993|By ARLENE EHRLICH

TC Seven-fifteen in the morning, and the telephone jolts me awake. Now the nightmare begins: The police are calling. They've found my car.

It wasn't the kind of car you'd expect a thief to grab. A 1985 Mazda, it had gone more than 90,000 miles and had the body damage to prove it. Given the array of late-model Jaguars, Toyotas and Tauruses on my street, who but a crazy man would target my car?

That, at least, was what I thought when, two days before Christmas, my car disappeared. Indignantly, I called my local police station. Why had they towed my car? A policeman checked the computer and reported, "Lady, we didn't tow your car. Most likely, it's been stolen. You'd better call 911."

Call 911? Why, when I already had the police on the phone? The policeman insisted: To report a stolen car, I must dial 911.

"What do you mean?" I demanded. "Some heart attack victim is going to drop dead while I tie up the emergency line with a stolen car complaint? Why can't you take the report right now?"

My answer was a dial tone.

Within 15 minutes, a policewoman arrived and began to fire questions. Did I remember the make and model of my car? Did I remember whether the car has two doors or four? Did I remember whether it had a manual or automatic transmission? "You'd be surprised," she says. "Sometimes people get so upset they can't remember any of those details."

Luckily, I remembered what kind of car I owned; it had, after all, been gone only a few hours. The policewoman offered some parting advice: "Don't cancel your insurance," she said. "If the thief has an accident in your car, he can sue you."

Fast-forward to Dec. 30: The voice on the phone tells me police recovered my car early this morning, six blocks from my house in Bolton Hill. And towed it all the way across town to the city impoundment lot on Pulaski Highway. The policeman gives me a property number and tells me to call the impoundment lot for more information.

At 9 a.m. I call the impoundment lot. After spending 20 minutes on hold with ear-splitting rock music, a screaming deejay, and a series of IKEA ads, I reach an operator. She takes my property number and delivers more bad news: I owe the city $55 for towing my car across town. Ordinarily, I would have until Jan. 1 to pony up, but because the lot is closed on New Year's Day, I have until 7 p.m. tomorrow, Dec. 31.

"By the way," she says, "bring a flat-head screwdriver with you to the impoundment lot." Come again? She explains: "According to the police report, the thief popped your ignition out. But we can show you how to start the car and drive it with the screwdriver."

Things begin to look up. Aside from the broken ignition, the car is undamaged. After the people at the Motor Vehicles Administration teach me how to hot-wire my own car, I can drive it home.

I beg a lift from a co-worker and arrive at the impoundment lot at 3 p.m. I take a number and wait an hour. The place is jammed

with people, most of them screaming some at the clerks and some at one another.

By the time they call my number I'm ready to start screaming, too. The clerk runs my property number through the computer and reports cheerfully, "We don't have your car. It's not in our records. I don't know anything about it."

Can I just go onto the impoundment lot and look for it? The clerk reacts as if I'd just handed her a used airsick bag.

"Absolutely not!" she says. "We have almost 2,000 cars out there. We can't just let the public browse around."

After another 15 minutes of searching, we discover that a data-entry clerk has transposed two digits in my property claim number. So they have my car after all, and I can get it just as soon as I produce my driver's license and registration.

"But the registration is in the car!" I wail. "How can I show you the registration if you won't let me onto the lot to get access to my car?"

The clerk has never heard of anything so stupid as a driver keeping her registration in the car. Still, if I'll wait another 20 minutes, a security officer will accompany me onto the lot to get the registration.

Sitting on the lot, surrounded by thousands of stolen, abandoned and homeless vehicles, my car wears an accusing, hang-dog look. A front tire is flat. The back seat is full of empty malt liquor bottles. And there, in the ignition, is the thief's screwdriver, still in the "on" position. The car battery is, of course, dead. Neither the police officers who recovered the car, nor the towing company that brought it to this place, bothered to turn the screwdriver, let alone remove it.

I snap open the glove compartment. No registration card. The thief took it.

"I thought so," the clerk says when I arrive back at the office. "They usually get rid of it, first thing. So I just called the MVA, and they faxed me your registration information."

Hold it right there. The clerk had access to the information all along? Then why did I have to waste all that time? "Well, we just have to make sure," she says. Make sure of what? Ours not to reason why.

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