July 11, 2012— -- Bob Russell could not be blamed for losing hope that he would reunite with his 1967 Austin-Healey. Stolen outside his Philadelphia apartment 42 years ago, the British roadster seemed a lost cause.
But thanks to the Internet and some creative police work, Russell has his pride and joy back.
When Russell, then a graduate student at Temple University, returned home the morning after a date with his future wife, his car was nowhere to be found. For decades since, he searched for his beloved ride in vain. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he stared at a parked Austin-Healey for half an hour in hopes of finding a distinctive marking to no avail.
On a recent eBay session, though, his luck changed: the cream-colored car was listed for auction by a Los Angeles car dealer, with a final bid of $19,700. Russell, who now lives near Dallas, knew the car was his because its vehicle identification number (VIN) matched the one on the title he kept since the theft.
"I'm not trying to sound indelicate, but you're selling my car," Russell told the dealer.
After Los Angeles police told Russell they could not recover it because it was not listed as an active stolen car, Russell called the Philadelphia Police Department, which, luckily for him, had a few tricks up its sleeve.
Deborah Sanborn, in the department's information-systems division, dug up a Teletype report about the theft in an archive. In order for Philadelphia police to communicate with police in Los Angeles, the case needed to be active in the FBI's information system, which it had not been for about 35 years, said Walt Bielski, a detective in the Philadelphia Police Department's major crimes division.
There seemed to be no way to fix that problem without creating a new one — re-entering the case would cause it to be counted incorrectly in 2012 crime statistics.
But Lt. Fred McQuiggan devised a clever solution: create a new category, "re-entered stolen vehicle," which would allow the theft to be activated without adding to the city's current crime tally.
After Bielski filed the report, the LAPD impounded Russell's car and said the retired sales manager could pick it up whenever — though not without paying $600 in towing fees.
Russell said he did not mind paying the fees at all when he picked up his Austin in Los Angeles on June 18. He was just happy he did not have to fight for the car in court and amazed at the odds he had beaten.
"The chances of it being it one piece were slim to none. The chances of me finding it were slim to none. Fifty coincidences had to coincide to have this happen," Russell said. "I should have bought some lottery tickets."
The Austin-Healey 3000, discontinued in 1967, is not in the shape it was in the day it was stolen, but Russell said he plans to restore it to its former glory. The interior needs work, the paint needs a new coat and the top needs to be replaced, he said.
Bielski said the car is the oldest stolen car in his department's records.
"I think it'll probably stay that way for a long time," he said.