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The only photo  Mikey Squires has of her stolen van is this one taken in the 1970s with a friend.  (Colin Mulvany)
The only photo Mikey Squires has of her stolen van is this one taken in the 1970s with a friend. (Colin Mulvany)

Vestal: Owner reunited with long-lost VW microbus

A year ago, Mikey Squires thought her van was gone for good.

Now she’s planning a welcome-home party for the 1965 Volkswagen microbus that’s taken her on the ride of her life. Unless there’s another twist in this much-twisted tale, Squires has her hands on the van at last – 36 years after it was stolen from a Spokane parking lot and 13 months after it was rediscovered by customs agents in California. Since then, it’s been a year of wrangling over what must be the most-contested question of ownership outside the Falkland Islands.

“I was a corporate attorney for more than 30 years, for big companies,” said Kris Cook, a retired attorney from Oklahoma who was captivated by Squires’ story and stepped in to help. “This was as complex as any multi-, multimillion- dollar negotiation or transaction I’ve been involved in. … We worked it out so everybody was happy.”

No one more than Squires, a Spokane native and longtime manager at the Cathay Inn, who is currently basking in the double glow of the Southern California sunshine and a happy ending.

“We got it!” she said by phone Thursday from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where she picked up the bus at the auction company that’s had it since last October. “I’m excited. It looks great and it brought back a lot of memories.

“I don’t remember how to shift it, though.”

Squires and her boyfriend, Earl Roethle, drove down with a trailer to haul the van back. They picked it up Thursday morning, and after some work to get it started and off the auction lot, Squires took the wheel and “drove” it onto the trailer as the others pushed.

They plan to spend a few days in San Diego, visiting her brother and getting in a round of golf, before hauling the bus back to Spokane.

There’ll be a party to celebrate Tuesday at the Cathay Inn, from 4 to 7 p.m. Cook’s coming from Oklahoma.

The story of Squires and her van has made its way around the world, thanks to the press and the Web. It was a party bus for her and some girlfriends when she was a young woman in Spokane, but it was stolen in the midst of Expo ’74. Allstate paid a $2,500 claim and that was pretty much that, until last November, when customs agents checked the VIN number on a beautifully restored 1965 VW bus – and found it had been reported stolen way back when.

Officials were unable to find the owner, and so they put out a news release about the case. Not long afterward, Squires saw a TV news story about the van while she was getting ready for bed one night, and knew it was hers. Thus began a tangled narrative involving an insurance company, some worldwide press, a fruitless search for the van’s title, and Squires’ efforts to regain ownership of the bus.

Cook, a retired attorney from Wagoner, Okla., read about the case in the Wall Street Journal and contacted Squires. As they got to know each other and became friends, Cook offered to represent Squires, pro bono, in her efforts to get the van back.

Cook’s relationship with Allstate Insurance Co. was less cordial. She initially figured she’d contact the company and they’d work something out. Squires was even willing to pay to get the van back, to help make the other parties whole. But Allstate, citing concerns about the chain of ownership and wanting to be fair to all parties, decided to put the van up for auction last December.

That decision followed weeks of Cook attempting to discuss the matter with the company’s legal counsel, to no avail.

“Got no response, got no response, kept sending e-mails – finally on the Friday after the auction I got a letter saying, ‘We consider this matter closed,’ ” Cook said.

A bidder spent about $30,000 to buy the car at auction. Squires accepted that she wouldn’t be getting it back.

“The van will always be mine,” she said at the time. “It was brought back to me in the story.”

But the story wasn’t over. Several months passed. No clear title for the bus could be found, and the sale foundered.

In June, “lo and behold, Mikey sends me an e-mail one night saying she’d been sued,” Cook said. “Which was fantastic.”

The missing title had been a problem all along. Allstate never had one, and the auction company couldn’t settle the title question to the satisfaction of the van’s purchasers. The company, Copart, eventually went to court and asked a judge to determine ownership.

Squires was back in the hunt.

Everyone who’d had a piece of the van was called into court to settle it. This was a long chain: most recently, the van had been purchased by a German man, Axel Hecker, from Donn Dabney, a classic car dealer in Sonoma, Calif., before it was seized on its way out of the country. Dabney had purchased it from a different dealer, who bought it from the man who did the restoration work.

Cook became quite familiar with these people as the case proceeded. It was finally settled in Squires’ favor about a month ago – the terms of the deal are secret – and the court issued the title to her this week.

“Axel is a very nice guy,” Cook said. “Donn is a very nice guy. Mikey is a very nice person. It was just a very complicated mess, but we have resolved it in a way that I think I can say confidently that Axel and Donn and Mikey and I are all good friends now.”

As for Squires, she and Roethle will have a sunny few days in SoCal and a long drive back to winter with the van on a trailer. She can’t wait to start sharing it with Spokane.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said. “I’ve got a couple parades I want to do. It’s just going to be a fun thing. … Even the Lilac Parade. I don’t know how you get into that parade, but I want to show her off.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com.

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