After 42 Years, Man Finds Car Stolen From Philly

Texas man uses eBay to locate car that was stolen while he was a student at Temple

By James Ragland
|  Friday, Jul 13, 2012  |  Updated 10:28 AM EDT
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This was hardly a joyride for Bob Russell.

But nearly 42 years after someone stole his 1967 Austin Healey 3000 from a Philadelphia apartment complex, the Southlake, Tex. sleuth is back in the driver's seat.

"That was quite the knockdown-dragout," Russell said of the decades-long search that finally turned up his British sports car at a California car dealership in mid-May.

Russell, 66, a retired sales manager, spent years surfing the Internet looking for his car and eyeing similar Healeys on the road.

Still, he didn't hold out much hope of ever finding the vehicle he paid a friend $3,000 for back in 1968, only to find it stolen the morning after taking his future wife out on their second date.

"The fact that the car still exists is improbable," he said. "It could have been junked or wrecked."

Instead, it was listed for sale by a dealer in an online auction, which is where a restless Russell came across it when he rolled out of bed a few weeks ago and wandered onto eBay.

"Ever since eBay showed up, I'd check it periodically," Russell said. "I checked it on Friday, May 11, and there it was."

He immediately called the dealer, the Beverly Hills Car Club, and sounded the alarm.

"I hate to sound indelicate," Russell told the unsuspecting dealer, "but you're selling a stolen car."

The last bid on the vehicle was $19,700, which didn't meet the reserve, Russell said, and the car didn't sell.

Russell said the car's vehicle identification number matched that of his Healey. In addition, he still had the original key and car title, as well as signed affidavits from friends, including the original owner, indicating that Russell had never sold the auto.

But one legal roadblock remained: He didn't have a copy of the stolen-car report he filed back in 1970.

So the two sides stalled, with the dealer telling Russell it bought the car from a man who claimed it had been in his family since 1970, Russell said.

"Well," Russell responded, "the car was stolen in 1970, so you can draw your own conclusion. They either stole it or bought it from the guy who stole it."

The dealer put out a press release Thursday detailing what led to them selling the car.

"To our knowledge, the car had a valid title and there was no report on it being a stolen vehicle, which was apparently due to an error by the Philadelphia Police Department," said Veras Manos from the Beverly Hills Car Club. "This could have happened to anyone buying a car on the internet."

After four weeks of haggling with the dealer, which initially offered to sell the car back to him for about $24,000, Russell asked law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia and Los Angeles for help, he said.

Turns out the original stolen-car report he filed in Philadelphia wasn't showing up at the National Crime Information Center because one VIN letter was entered incorrectly into the FBI's computerized index of crimes.

But thanks to persistent detectives in Philadelphia, Russell said, the report finally was located.

Once he got his hands on a copy of the report, Philadelphia Police were able to reactivate the file. That enabled the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to impound the car.

Russell and his wife, Cynthia, drove to LA on June 16 and took possession of the car two days later after paying roughly $600 in impoundment fees.

They also paid about $800 to have the Austin Healey shipped to their Southlake home, where it arrived June 23.

"We were probably out $1,500 plus six days of travel and hotel costs," Russell said. "I'm not complaining about any of that. I couldn't get the credit card out of my pocket fast enough."

Russell said he intends to restore the Austin Healey, which he said is worth $20,000 to $30,000.

"It still runs, but the brakes don't work well," he said. "We're going to put it back the way it was."

When the restoration's finished, he said, the car "probably will be worth around $50,000."

He's can't wait to get started on the project.

"I had a hobby car but got rid of my Porsche 911 a year ago," he said. "I used to have an antique Corvette and a couple of motorcycles. Now I have a grandpa (Toyota) Camry"

Russell and his wife have come a long way since the car was stolen. She retired as an English teacher two years ago, and he mostly plays golf these days.

They both were graduate students at Temple University when they met -- and went on their first two dates in the car, which Russell was too cash-strapped to insure.

Cynthia Russell credits her husband's "dogged sleuthing and fantastic help from friends, family and law enforcement officers" for getting the car back where it belongs.

"It's a bit of a relief," her husband said. "Nothing's ever linear -- you're up, you're down, you're being whipsawed back and forth, and suddenly it's over."

Russell has his car back but the Car Club is out thousands.

"We are all very happy that Mr. Russell has gotten his car back," Manos said. "However, we are victims in this situation. We have lost $27,000, which is what we paid for the car plus the cost to ship it to California."

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