After a thief strikes, CDs aren't only thing missing

February 04, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

THIS IS THE story of a girl's first car, a story that should be uplifting and inspirational but instead has the kind of ending that leaves you shaking your head.

It begins with a girl named Nicole Kleim. She's 16, a junior at Loch Raven High, a good kid who gets straight A's on her report card and works after school each day at Oak Crest Village retirement community to make a few bucks.

A few months before her 16th birthday last November, she got her first car, a 1998 Jeep Wrangler. She paid for a big chunk of it out of her savings. And her dad, Jamie Kleim, who has a car repair shop in Cockeysville, paid for the rest.

The Wrangler had a cool paint job. It had a 5-speed manual transmission, bar lights running across the top, tires thick enough to climb a skyscraper.

It was the kind of car any kid would love. And Nicole loved it.

On weekends, she practiced driving with her dad, trying to master the clutch-and-shift operation that's tricky at first. And she fussed over the car constantly, outfitting it with a new steering wheel cover, seat covers and floor mats.

"The car was my first real responsibility," Nicole recalled the other day. "I wanted to fix it up so it would be cool-looking and make me happy."

What a great story, right? And it gets even better.

Because on her 16th birthday, her parents handed her another gift. When she unwrapped it, it was the empty box to a sound system for the Jeep.

She ran out to the Jeep, and there it was: mega-sound! A glittering new Sony CD player in the dashboard. Awesome speakers built into the roof. With a remote to control the whole thing, no less.

"I was very shocked and really happy," Nicole said.

Think how great it was to be Nicole Kleim in the months that followed.

You're 16. You've got your drivers license. You've got a cool car with a killer sound system. Life doesn't get any better.

"The American Dream," Jamie Kleim said.

Yes, that's it exactly. Nicole was living the American Dream.

Until 10 days ago.

That morning, Jamie Kleim rose early in his Parkville home, as usual. At 6:30, he went outside. He looked at the Jeep, parked just 15 feet from his kitchen. The plastic window on the passenger side was ripped.

The new CD player was gone. The bar lights were gone - someone had used a special torque driver to loosen the heavy bolts and take the entire bar. The thieves even took 5 bucks and loose change out of the ashtray, and a special CD that Nicole's friend Brian had made for her.

The Kleims live down a secluded lane in a nice neighborhood, where this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen.

Only it did happen. Nicole was getting ready for school when her mom, Kimberly, delivered the bad news. Nicole thought she was joking, at first.

Soon came the tears, a Mississippi River of tears. Then came the anger.

"I was really mad," she recalled. "I'm really trusting of people. I trust everyone until they do something that makes me not trust them. When my mom left, I just kept thinking: `Who could have done this to me?' "

Now maybe you read all this and think the bottom line to the story is - another car gets hit.

Big deal, you say. People have their cars broken into all the time.

But of course it is a big deal when it happens to you.

How could it not be a big deal to Nicole? You're 16, and your first set of wheels, your pride and joy, has been broken into by some skuzz- balls and rifled.

You lose an expensive stereo system and some lights, sure. But we all know you lose a helluva lot more than that.

You lose a little bit of your trust in others, a little bit of your confidence in your surroundings - a little bit of your childhood, really.

You wake up the next day, and the world looks a little meaner, a little grayer, a little grimier.

That's what you really lose.

"I know everyone isn't bad," Nicole said. "But [now] I can't trust everyone all the time. I want to, but I can't."

The good news, if there is any here, is that the insurance should cover most of the damage. Nicole and her dad were supposed to go looking at new CD players this past weekend. And the Jeep is in Jamie's shop now, having the window repaired and new bar lights installed.

"But [the insurance] can't pay for the sentimental things: the CD player my mom and dad gave me, the CD Brian made," Nicole said softly. "It won't be the same."

No, it won't be. And here's another way it'll be different: The next time she drives the Jeep, it'll have an alarm system.

"She'll always have it in her mind that she has to keep an eye on it and worry about it," Jamie Kleim said. Maybe the alarm system will take a little of the worry away.

So that's the story of Nicole Kleim's first car. As I said, it's not the kind of story that leaves you whistling "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."

And you know what? Things are different for Jamie Kleim now, too.

For one thing, he doesn't sleep quite as soundly as he used to.

"At 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, I get up and look around," he said.

He finds himself listening for strange sounds now, too. His house is so secluded he never worried about locking his cars, but that's all over with, too.

Maybe that's the real bottom line to this story.

It wasn't just Nicole Kleim who had something stolen 10 days ago.

The rest of her family did, too.

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