As police probe, victim in Camden car theft saga waits for restitution

Michelle Perez of Camden discovered Oaklyn police found her car eight days after it was stolen. By the time she tracked it down, she owed so much in fees, it ended up sold for scrap.
Michelle Perez of Camden discovered Oaklyn police found her car eight days after it was stolen. By the time she tracked it down, she owed so much in fees, it ended up sold for scrap. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

A week ago, Camden County Metro Police Chief Scott Thomson promised to make restitution to a single mother if it turned out his department had botched its investigation of the theft of her car from outside her Benson Street home in January.

Since then, Michelle Perez, 32, who lives and works in the city, has heard nothing from the police about any restitution she might receive, she said Thursday.

Perez, an Air Force veteran, said Camden police came to her house Wednesday morning to get copies of documents related to the theft that she had collected since the ordeal began.

Asked whether police discussed restitution, Perez responded: "No, ma'am."

She said the detective was surprised to see she had one report in particular, one not usually shared with the public: It showed that her 1991 Chrysler LeBaron had been recovered eight days after it was stolen.

Perez said she received the document - months after her car went missing - from a sympathetic Oaklyn officer. It indicated the car was recovered in Camden by Oaklyn police with the assistance of Metro police.

Still, Camden police, to whom she reported the theft, never told her the car had been found.

The Chrysler was stolen Jan. 12 and recovered Jan. 20 after a police chase from Oaklyn to Camden. For three months, the car sat in an impound lot. Perez discovered its whereabouts April 30, when she received a certified letter from Oaklyn threatening her with penalties for not retrieving the car from Cioffi's Towing in Cherry Hill.

Towing and storage fees by then had exceeded $2,800 - more than the car was worth. Perez opted to sign it over to the lot.

Oaklyn Police Chief Mark Moore said this week the Chrysler was entered into a law enforcement database Jan. 20 as required by law. The database can be accessed by any department.

"I feel awful," Moore said. "She needs a car."

Perez said when she responded to the Oaklyn letter, borough police reached out to Cioffi's and urged leniency because Perez had not been promptly notified that her car was in the lot.

Owner Fred Cioffi said this week if Perez wanted the car back, she could have negotiated a lower price. Perez said that she offered to pay some storage fees but that it did not appear she could bargain.

The car was eventually sold as scrap for $400 to recover some of Cioffi's towing and storage costs.

"Cars are not like wine or cheese. They don't get better with time, they only get worse," Cioffi said. "We do not try to rake people over the coals. Some of these vehicles are not worth the tow bill."

He added that if police had informed him Perez was the owner, his staff would have contacted her.

Perez said she repeatedly urged Camden Metro police to investigate, specifically asking them to obtain images from a surveillance camera where her car was parked. She said a detective told her the department was too busy to pursue car thefts.

By the time another officer inquired, the recordings had been taped over.

According to an Oaklyn police report, a borough officer first discovered the stolen car. He pursued it into Camden, where the driver abandoned it and ran. Metro Police joined the search with a canine unit. Eventually, a suspect, Demane Martin, was arrested.

Martin, 32, of Camden, was charged by Oaklyn with receiving stolen property and eluding police.

"If we made mistakes in this case, we will explore providing restitution," Thomson said May 22.

Thomson said Thursday, "We are investigating the theft and the administrative processing of Ms. Perez's vehicle."

Department spokesman Mike Daniels said, "We want to dot all our i's and cross all our t's."

Perez said that since an article about the theft appeared with her picture on the front page of The Inquirer last week, three others in her neighborhood whose cars were stolen told her they, too, were frustrated with police.

"The same thing happened to them," Perez said. Two of the three alleged that police would not write up theft reports.

Daniels said police do investigate car thefts.

According to Camden police data, vehicle thefts tumbled from 155 to 80 in the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Failure of police to notify owners when stolen vehicles are recovered is a statewide problem, said the executive director of a towing association advocating for change.

"The problem is they don't do their job," said Mary Leigh Barbusin of the Garden State Towing Association. Though not familiar with Camden in particular, she said towing companies and impound-lot owners should have access to a database of vehicle owners so they can directly contact them.

"This would be such an easy thing to fix, but instead it is a mess," Barbusin said. "Towing companies are stuck with vehicles they can't get rid of. Cars are just stacking up everywhere."

A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office referred the matter to the state Motor Vehicle Commission, whose spokeswoman said the agency had no authority over police protocol.

Perez filed an Internal Affairs complaint against the detective who allegedly told her authorities were too busy to investigate.

On May 6, Perez received a letter from Metro Police that a "thorough and impartial investigation . . . failed to disclose sufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove" her allegation.


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

Inquirer staff writer Michael Boren contributed to this article.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|