November 6, 2009 in City

Microbus turns up 35 years after theft

By The Spokesman-Review
Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection in California discovered this 1965 Volkswagen van in a shipping container destined for the Netherlands and found it was reported stolen in 1974 in Spokane. Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection
(Full-size photo)

Customs agents in Los Angeles found a surprise last month when they opened a shipping container headed for the Netherlands: a restored 1965 Volkswagen van reported stolen in Spokane more than 35 years ago.

Investigators are still trying to figure out how the van made it from Spokane in the midst of Expo ’74 to the Los Angeles seaport last month, though they assume it changed hands several times. The van was reported stolen from an auto upholstery shop on July 12, 1974; authorities have not been able to find the original owner, whom they would not identify.

The operators of a custom restoration business in Arizona were the latest to have possession of the van, which they refurbished and planned to sell overseas along with three restored VW Beetles, said Michael Maleta, an auto theft investigator with the California Highway Patrol.

He said the custom shop, which he would not identify, is also considered a victim in the case. The legal owner of the van is Allstate Insurance Co., which paid off the owner back in 1974, and the Highway Patrol turned over the van to the company this week.

Customs agents came across the van Oct. 19 in a shipping container at the Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport complex. When they ran the vehicle identification number they discovered it was still listed as stolen.

Maleta said federal officials at the border check vehicles against the National Insurance Crime Bureau database, which includes all old stolen-car cases. Most police databases remove stolen cars from “active” status after five years – after which stolen cars may be sold and resold to buyers who can register the vehicles with state agencies, he said.

In 1974, the van’s owner apparently was trying to spiff it up – taking it to a detail shop and then the upholstery shop in the 1600 block of West Second Avenue from which it was stolen, according to the police report.

Maleta said the van had been restored to pristine condition. The value of a 9-year-old VW van back then would have been in the hundreds of dollars.

“Now it’s probably worth 27 grand,” he said. “It’s a beautiful van.”

Megan Brunet, a spokeswoman for Allstate, said the company has been digging through old records trying to find the original policy and theft claim. She said the company could not identify the original owner, under its privacy rules.

“Trying to find paper files from that far back can be pretty challenging,” she said.

She said the company will likely have the van appraised and go through the process of getting a replacement title before selling it at auction.

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