Theft of car leaves Camden resident angry - at police

Michelle Perez of Camden - a self-employed bookkeeper, and former Air Force mechanic who maintained fighter planes - said she reluctantly surrendered the title rather than pay the fees.
Michelle Perez of Camden - a self-employed bookkeeper, and former Air Force mechanic who maintained fighter planes - said she reluctantly surrendered the title rather than pay the fees. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 24, 2014

Michelle Perez is angrier at the Camden police than she is at the thief who stole her 1991 Chrysler LeBaron in January.

Perez, who lives and works in the city, said she had no expectations of the thief. The police, she was confident, would help her find the white sedan she had bought used and paid more than $2,000 to fix.

"With the level of technology that's available, all they had to do is punch my information into a computer," Perez said in an interview Thursday.

Perez alleges, however, that Camden Metro Police refused to investigate.

Unknown to her, the car had been recovered days after it was stolen and was sitting in a Cherry Hill impound lot, accumulating towing and storage fees that when she finally located it exceeded $2,800 - more than it was worth.

Eight days after it disappeared, the car was chased back into Camden by an Oaklyn officer who noticed it was stolen. The man driving it, Demane Martin, 32, of Camden, was arrested. Perez would learn months later that Oaklyn police had entered the recovery of her car into a national crime database where all departments can check on the status of cars reported stolen.

Perez - a self-employed bookkeeper, and former Air Force mechanic who maintained fighter planes - said she reluctantly surrendered the title rather than pay the fees.

"I'm a taxpayer and I should not have to do my own investigation when I am a single mother taking care of two children," said Perez, who also works in Camden teaching city students financial literacy.

Perez said she retired as a staff sergeant in 2010, after serving in the military for nearly a decade - active duty after 9/11, and from 2004 in the reserves with the 177th Fighter Wing in Pomona, N.J.

"If we made mistakes in this case, we will explore providing restitution," Camden Metro Police Chief Scott Thomson said in a statement.

The department's spokesman, Michael Daniels, said authorities were still investigating the car theft as well as why Perez was not notified when it was recovered.

Perez said she filed an internal affairs complaint against the detective who she alleged told her, "Don't call us, we'll call you." She also criticized others who promised to investigate but didn't.

"It's putting up a facade," she said of the Metro division of the newly created Camden County Police. "They have the presence of the police department, but no follow-up, and no accountability."

About a year ago, as the old city police department was disbanded and replaced by the county force, officials vowed better service and less crime. Daniels said authorities do investigate car thefts and he was not sure why Camden had not yet filed charges against the person found driving Perez's stolen car.

Perez first learned her car had been recovered only on April 30, when she received a certified letter from Oaklyn police.

"If you do not respond to this notice, you could be subject to summons for . . . willful abandonment of a motor vehicle," the letter said, warning of a possible $1,000 fine and two-year loss of driving and registration privileges.

The saga began Jan. 12 when Perez's LeBaron disappeared from the 600 block of Benson Street, near Cooper University Hospital, where she lives.

The car had been stolen in Camden once before, about two years earlier. Since then Perez had attached an antitheft club to the steering wheel and parked near a hospital surveillance camera - impediments that did not deter the second thief.

Perez was planning to go shopping that Sunday morning. Her father told her he thought she already had left because her car was gone.

She laughed.

"Really, your car is gone," she said he repeated.

She ran outside and found broken glass where her car had been. It was there at 8 a.m. It was gone about 10:40. She immediately reported it stolen.

Then on Jan. 15, she walked into Metro Police headquarters on Federal Street and was referred to a detective. Perez wanted police to get images from the surveillance camera at Cooper Hospital. The detective, she said, was rude to her and told her the department did not have enough personnel to investigate car thefts.

Months later, Perez would learn her car was found by Oaklyn police on Jan 20.

According to police records, an Oaklyn patrol officer attempted to stop the car at the Black Horse Pike and Nicholson Road in Audubon. The driver fled north on the pike, and jumped the median to catch Route 130 north.

The Oaklyn officer pursued the vehicle into Camden, where the driver was arrested after he abandoned the car and tried to run away on Haddon Avenue, near Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center.

Oaklyn police had the vehicle towed to an impound lot in Cherry Hill and charged Martin with eluding and resisting arrest and receiving stolen property. He remains in jail, authorities said Thursday.

Perez said she kept asking Camden Metro Police for updates through February and filed an internal affairs complaint against the detective in March.

When Perez received the letter from Oaklyn, she went to the Cherry Hill lot to get her car. That's when she found out she had to pay $2,880 to retrieve it. If she did not sign the title giving the impound lot ownership, the fees would continue to grow, she said she was told.

Perez said Oaklyn police tried to help, calling the impound company on her behalf. When she arrived at the lot, the impound representative was sympathetic as well and did not press her to make a decision immediately.

She later returned and surrendered ownership of the car. She had paid $600 to buy it and more than $2,000 for a new transmission.

An employee who answered the phone Thursday at the lot said the car was no longer there and likely had been crushed for scrap metal.

"I still have the tags," Perez said, explaining that she took a few pictures of the car at the impound lot and struggled with the decision to sign it away. "It's difficult to let go when it's something you have worked hard for and paid for."


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

Inquirer staff writer Michael Boren contributed to this article.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|