Man finds Philly stolen car 42 years later on eBay

Temple alum Bob Russell and wife Cyndy with the '67 Austin-Healey.
Temple alum Bob Russell and wife Cyndy with the '67 Austin-Healey. (MICHAEL AINSWORTH / Dallas Morning News)
Posted: July 12, 2012

Bob Russell never gave up hope that his stolen 1967 Austin-Healey would be found one day.

He was a graduate student at Temple University in 1970 when he parked the English roadster at an apartment complex after a date with his future wife. When he went to the lot the next morning, the car was gone.

Because he was a cash-strapped student, it was a double whammy: He had liability coverage, but no theft insurance.

For more than four decades, Russell searched for the cream-colored convertible. This year, against all odds, he found it. And with the help of the Philadelphia Police Department, he has his Austin-Healey back.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Russell was scouring eBay, the Internet sales website, when he spotted his hot car listed for auction by a Los Angeles auto dealer.

The final bid on the Austin stood at $19,700, which, Russell told the News, did not meet the reserve price.

The listed VIN matched his beloved Austin. Russell, now living near Dallas, still possessed the title and set of keys. The only thing he didn't have was the original stolen-auto report.

Russell told the newspaper that he called the dealer.

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

The dealer offered to sell it back to him for $24,000.

Russell called Los Angeles police. Their hands were tied. There was no record in the national database. They couldn't recover the Austin unless it was listed as an active stolen car. And, technically, it wasn't.

So Russell called Philadelphia police.

But what police department keeps stolen-auto reports for 42 years? And even if the report could be located, would the theft then have to be tallied in this year's crime stats?

The prognosis was not good.

Fortunately, Philadelphia cops love a good puzzle.

"We had to make sure we did everything right," said Detective Walt Bielski of the major-crimes unit.

Though there was no computer record, Deborah Sanborn in the department's information-systems division found an old Teletype reporting the theft of the roadster.

Lt. Fred McQuiggan, head of the department's Police Integrated Information Network, discovered that the VIN had been entered incorrectly into the FBI's computerized files. After straightening that out, he found a way to relist the car as stolen without its appearing to be a new theft.

"McQuiggan is the guy who really helped push this through," Bielski said. "He's a flexible and smart problem-solver."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office could now impound the car.

In mid-June, Russell and his wife drove to California, paid $600 in impoundment fees, and took possession of the Austin-Healey.

Russell, who praised the Philadelphia police for their efforts, plans to restore the car to its former glory.

"It's a bit of a relief," Russell told the News about his ordeal. "Nothing's ever linear - you're up, you're down, you're being whipsawed back and forth, and suddenly it's over."


Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796

or samwood@phillynews.com.

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