December 10, 2009 in City

Decision due Monday on stolen microbus

VW van’s first owner a sentimental favorite
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

The restored 1965 Volkswagen van was found in a shipping container headed for Europe. Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The saga of the stolen Volkswagen van should be resolved – sort of – very soon.

But someone’s bound to be left unhappy.

First, there’s Spokane’s Michele Squires – the former owner of a 1965 VW microbus stolen in 1974. The news that it turned up 35 years later led people all over the country to call for the van to be returned to Squires, a longtime waitress and now a manager at the Cathay Inn who goes by “Mikey.”

But halfway around the world waits the German who paid more than $20,000 for the beautifully restored classic bus, believing it was a legal sale and holding a clean California title.

Playing Solomon will be Allstate Insurance Co. The company legally owns the van, but it’s being heavily lobbied on all sides to “do the right thing.” In this case, though, the right thing depends on who you’re talking to.

“There are a lot of folks who are very, very interested in what we’re going to do with the van,” said Megan Brunet, a spokeswoman for Allstate based in Bothell, Wash.

“It’s unbelievable. I’ve probably had, and this is just an estimate, three to four hundred inquiries from consumers all over the country.”

Allstate plans to announce its decision Monday. It could decide to auction off the van, as it would typically, or simply give it to Squires or the German buyer. It also might auction it off and donate the proceeds to charity, or even give it to a museum, Brunet said.

Squires would love to have the van back, but she said she couldn’t pay anything near the estimated $25,000 value. Her budget would be more like $2,500 to $5,000.

“I haven’t had it for 35 years, so it’s not something I’m going to cry over,” she said. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

National response

A lot of people would love to see the van go back to Squires, a 58-year-old Spokane native who used the van for freewheeling fun with her friends in the 1970s. It was stolen from an upholstery shop in 1974, and Squires was paid $2,500 by Allstate to settle the claim.

Then, in late October, customs officials in the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport ran across the van during a check of a cargo shipment heading for Europe.

Running the vehicle identification number through the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s database, they found the van was stolen, seized it and returned it to the owner of record – Allstate.

When Squires recognized the van on local news reports and came forward, the story spread. The Wall Street Journal put her story on the front page on Nov. 12, headlined, “For Mikey’s Missing Microbus, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.” She began to hear from supporters all over the country, as did the insurance company.

A retired attorney in Oklahoma contacted Squires, wanting to write a screenplay about the story. A man in Michigan wrote to the head of Allstate, urging him to return the van to Squires. Another supporter offered her $1,000 to help her buy back the bus.

Meanwhile, plenty of people she knows around town have been in touch, and the van has been a big subject of discussion at the Cathay Inn, a Chinese restaurant on North Division Street.

“Yesterday my old math teacher from Rogers High School came in and told me how much I should pay,” said Squires, who’s lived in Spokane almost all her life. “He figured out the interest.”

International sale

Donn Dabney has his own ideas about what would constitute the right thing. A classic car dealer in Sonoma, Calif., Dabney sold the van for more than $20,000 to a “terrific guy” from Germany, who followed all the rules to legally buy and have the car exported, he said.

That customer ought to get it, Dabney said.

“I think that would be doing the right thing,” Dabney said. “Otherwise, my guy’s out 20-something-thousand dollars, and we all have to start suing each other.”

Contacted Wednesday at his home in southern Germany, the buyer said he did not want to be identified. But he said he followed the rules to purchase, export and ship the van, and if anyone has a claim on the bus now, he does.

“It seems in all fairness, I’m the owner,” he said. “If you get a title that is clean, you have it in front of you, what should you believe?”

Dabney said he understands the sentimental interest people might have in seeing Squires get the van back. But he said she was paid by Allstate in 1974, and he and others involved with the van more recently were playing by the rules and spending a lot of money on the bus.

He said he doesn’t understand why the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a clear title on the van, if there was a record of it being stolen somewhere. For guys like him who deal in classic cars, it’s a scary scenario.

“They must be putting counterfeit titles on lots of cars,” he said.

“We pay the DMV all this money. What are they doing for me? Putting counterfeit titles on cars, and I just eat this?”

The California DMV checks all registrations against the FBI’s National Crime Information Center for theft, said department spokesman Armando Botello. But, unlike the insurance database, records of vehicle thefts are purged from that database after five years, according to the center’s Web site.

So someone can apply for a new title after that. That’s apparently what happened with this case.

Brunet said it’s taken Allstate several weeks to make a decision, mostly because it was awaiting the results of a thorough investigation of the vehicle’s ownership history, to make sure that it did indeed own the van and all its parts.

That investigation is complete, but she wouldn’t say what it has concluded before Monday.

“We really want to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” she said.


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