A Richmond mystery: The case of the two cars in the marina
on November 1, 2011
My phone rings unexpectedly. It’s Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan.
“Lexi,” he says, “you know the dredging that’s been going on in the marina? I guess they just pulled two cars out of the water. I can ask if you can go out for a first look with the inspectors.”
I start grabbing my camera and messenger bag.
“Let’s hope there are no skeletons in the trunks,” Gagan jokes.
A few hours later I pull into the parking lot at the Craneway Pavilion, late in the afternoon under a blazing sun. Officers Joey Schlemmer and Phil Sanchez and Harbor Master Steve Orosz were waiting for me, chatting beside Schlemmer’s police motorcycle.
Schlemmer has just returned from responding to a serious car accident in a different part of Richmond, but he and Sanchez seem relaxed as they look out over the marina. For cops, an afternoon spent on the waterfront is a welcome change from routine paperwork and traffic stops.
Orosz walks us to the rope barrier where he believes the cars were steered into the marina and points to the glittering water where the cars emerged. Both the vehicles had been found the night before during channel dredging.
Dredging consists of pulling up silt from the marina floor and straining it through a 12 foot x 12 foot filter. It clears the channel so passing boats are not scraped or blocked. Whatever doesn’t fit through that small filter – a car, say – usually gets sifted out and dumped at a landfill.
The specific channel where they found the cars is for pleasure boats, such as sailboats. They haven’t dredged there for 10 years.
“We’re going to take you out there,” Orosz says to me, nodding toward cement platforms in the water with the cranes used for dredging.
“Although it’s going to be a pretty muddy. I hope you don’t ruin your shoes.”
He looks hopelessly at my loafers.
He then says I’ll need a lifejacket and starts taking off his to give to me.
I consider the Canon camera around my neck and the iPhone in my bag. I remember two summers ago when my boyfriend accidentally walked into the ocean with his phone in his swim trunks. We tried everything short of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for that little gadget, to no avail.
My second thought is of my numbing fear of open water. And by “open,” I really mean anything other than a swimming pool.
Now, I’m starting to get nervous.
I pop the bulky lifejacket over my button-up shirt and sweater, and immediately start sweating. I tell myself it’s from the sun.
We come to the dock’s gate and Orosz realizes that he doesn’t know the lock combo, but points to the rocky hillside and says we can climb down, up and around, holding onto the fence for support. Between the bulky lifevest, the camera bag and my messenger bag, I look entirely stupid and suspiciously like a pack mule.
Although I tiptoe onto the first rock and take care to get a good foothold, my heavy load betrays me on the second. The only thing that keeps me from slamming down the hill is my death-grip on the fence.
Schlemmer looks nervous and offers to carry my camera bag.
I take even more care now as we make our way back up the hill and toward the end of our climb. I get to the final fence, where Orosz and Sanchez already hoisted themselves through the slats.
Overconfident in my dexterity, I try lifting myself up and over the fence. I don’t make it and nearly tumble backward.
I glance back. Schlemmer looks nervous again.
I decide to take the more conventional path, successfully slipping through the middle of the fencing.
We all hop aboard the small motorboat, which sways precariously as we move off the dock and toward the platform. While the recreational channel is only 12 feet deep, the channel we’re passing through can accommodate larger boats and goes down to 30 feet.
The motor churns, drowning out the sound of my nervous gulp.
We cruise up to the platform and Oroszo informs us that there is no ladder, just tires hanging off of the sides. We hoist ourselves up out of the motorboat, get a grip on the tire and pull ourselves on to this giant slab of floating cement.
The platform has two cranes and a litter of memorabilia from the marina floor — tires, chunks of motors, wood piling and rocks. The air reeks of burning metal, oil, the bay.
Orosz was right about getting my shoes dirty; the platform is coated in mounds of mud pulled up during the dredging. As I walked toward the wreckage of the two cars, the muck slurps and sucks at my slip-ons.
One of the cars is hardly recognizable — it had been mangled from passing boats and probably years in the water. The metal of the frame curls in snags. The only familiar things are one mostly intact door and a sopping wet seat.
The other car, however, is nearly whole. Like the first, the water had licked and eaten away at its frame. The paint remaining on the outside sticks up in thick, stiff slices. Torrents of mud seep from every opening and water slowly drips from the frame with a steady rhythm, even though the car has been out of the water for hours.
The car rests on its side, making it hard to tell some parts from others, but it is easy to see that one of the seatbelts had been tied to the steering wheel.
Someone meant to drive this car into the water.
“Let’s take a look at this,” Sanchez says.
He puts on work gloves and begins to inspect the wreckage for identifying numbers. He yanks at the door of the most destroyed car, looking to see exactly what he’s working with before moving on to the second. He glances through the mess, picking at the few fragments of windshield with his fingers. Orosz and Sanchez both rub at parts of the car that might carry a VIN number.
Sanchez reaches in and pulls out a corroded metal slip.
“This is what’s left of the VIN plate,” he tells me.
It’s rusted and looks like the water had taken nibbles out of it.
Orosz hoists himself higher on the car and sees a sticker.
“There’s a lot of mud,” he says. “You’ll need to get some water on it.”
They decide to flip the car over on what used to be its wheels. A platform worker gets in a nearby crane and starts nudging the car. The crane shakes the entire platform. I look down at the water and back to the camera around my neck. Would a Canon survive a little dunk? Could I lift it above my head if I fell in? I consider my options as the ground teeters below me.
The car begins to creak and shift with what seems like an effortless motion.
“You know you guys are destroying evidence,” Sanchez laughs as the crane continues to push at the car.
Finally, the car gives a sigh and crashes into place.
Sanchez and Orosz continue to search. They look through the seats and what’s left of the trunk. Although they don’t find any skeletons, they do find VIN numbers for both the vehicles. Sanchez calls them in. Neither of the cars are registered as stolen, but one is named as the property of Allstate Insurance.
Then, there’s the much less thrilling business of figuring how to get the cars off the platform.
The cars could increase the time the workers spend on the platform, so they need to be moved soon. The group decides on a few tentative plans, the cars will be taken to shore the next day or the day after, and then they depart.
The police department will continue to investigate the case of these cars. A seatbelt wrapped around a steering wheel may be a little less exciting than a skeleton. But the vehicle may have been stolen or, perhaps more likely, someone drove it into the marina after the insurance company took possession of it. I imagine someone down on their luck shifting their car into neutral and slowly pushing it toward its watery grave in a strange funeral procession.
As for the other car, it may have been down there for so long that, even if it was stolen, records may not come up for it — its memories have been eaten away by the waves.
After a while on the platform, we climb back down into the motorboat to head back.
“Oh, Lexi! Your shoes!” Schlemmer says. My loafers are coated and stained with mud, and my jeans have smears of dirt. But the damage has been done.
“Well, sorry it wasn’t more exciting,” Sanchez says of the cars. “A homicide vehicle or something.”
“Well, what do we do now?” Schlemmer asks.
“I don’t know,” Sanchez says. “Go to the Boilerhouse?”
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