Dia Black last saw her 1996 Jeep Cherokee on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002. She had gone to the supermarket, dropped off her groceries at her Woodley Park apartment, and hunted for a parking space. After driving around for 15 minutes, she found one on Woodley Place.
There she left the Jeep. Black takes the Metro for her daily commute, relying on her car mainly for errands. So it wasn’t until the following Thursday, when she rode up Woodley Place in a friend’s car, that she noticed the Jeep was missing.
Black called the police. She had no outstanding tickets on her car, and its registration was up to date. The police said that they hadn’t towed her Jeep and that it was probably stolen. She filled out a theft report.
Woodley Place residents, though, told Black they had seen cars being towed. She began calling the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW), the D.C. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), in search of answers. “Each department assured me that they hadn’t been the ones to move it,” she says.
After calling city agencies every day for a month, Black finally gave up and filed a claim with her insurance company, USAA, for total vehicle loss. She had bought the Jeep used four years ago, for $23,000. USAA estimated the current value of the vehicle at a little over $9,000 and paid off her car note. Black received a check for the difference: $2,470.
On Jan. 7, a police officer showed up at her door at 1 a.m. The police, he told her, had found her car.
Black followed the officer to the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Tilden Street NW. Her Jeep was sitting in a legal parking spot, covered in snow. Curled around a windshield wiper was a ticket too bleached out to read. DMV officials later told her they had no record of ticketing the car.
Black found no signs of forced entry. The alarm light was still blinking. “Everything inside was exactly as I left it,” she says. “Radio tuned to the same station, CD cases full, and my change still neatly stacked in the coin holders.”
The officers on the scene offered their opinion on what happened: The DPW had towed the car and hadn’t logged it in properly. Happens all the time, they told her.
Black called USAA with the good news. The insurance company, however, told her she couldn’t move the Jeep. Because Black had received a claim check, the car now belonged to USAA. The insurance company would arrange to tow the car and sell it at an auction for dealers only. “I didn’t even have the option to buy the car back from them,” she says.
For the next two weeks, Black dialed up DMV officials to find out how her Jeep had been moved without the city’s having any record of it. She says DMV officials had no answer for her, and neither did their DPW counterparts.
On Thursday, Jan. 23, Kevin Schultze, a reporter with WJLA TV, did a piece on the unaccounted-for migration of the Jeep. Two hours after he interviewed the DPW department head, Schultze had an answer for Black: The DPW had a record of towing a car with the tag number BE 5291; Black’s tags were BF 5291.
Having confirmed that the District was at fault for misplacing her Jeep, Black tried calling City Administrator John Koskinen to see if the government could save her car from the auction block. Officials told her that D.C. was powerless to stop the auction, and that her only recourse was to file a claim with the Office of Corporation Council.
Black says she may take him up on the advice: “I don’t expect my car to be towed, lost, and sold without an apology, explanation, or some sort of compensation.”
Though they haven’t told Black, District officials finally do have an explanation: According to DPW spokesperson Mary Myers, DOT was doing road work in Woodley Park and put up “No Parking” signs after Black parked. When no one moved the Jeep, the DPW gave the vehicle “a courtesy tow.”
On Jan. 29, Insurance Auto Auction put Black’s Jeep up for sale. It was sold the same day to an undisclosed buyer for an undisclosed sum.
Black followed the auction on the Web. In the online photograph of her Jeep, Black could still see her screwdriver inside. She had left it there, planning to remove her tags, but the tow company collected the vehicle before she got the chance.
Replacement tags, once Black buys a new vehicle, will cost about $80. CP