D.C., where’s my car? How the city lost — and found — a reporter’s Toyota RAV4


Charlene parked facing Idaho Avenue near the police station. (Lynh Bui /The Washington Post)
August 17, 2013

Staring at the empty D.C. parking spot near my home, there was a fleeting moment when I thought I had a serious memory problem. My Toyota RAV4, which I was sure I had parked in that very spot a few nights earlier, wasn’t there.

I almost always park my car in front of the police headquarters on Idaho Avenue. Putting it in the same place means I don’t have to worry about forgetting where I parked. Besides, who would steal a car within spitting distance of a police station?

So I left Charlene — yes, I named my car — in her usual place on a Sunday night. But when I went back Wednesday evening to meet a friend for dinner, Charlene was gone.

Dread. That pit-of-the-stomach heaviness that comes with knowing that your most valuable possession is no longer in your possession. Was it stolen? Was someone else driving Charlene? Was someone tearing her up for parts?

That’s when I saw the “Emergency No Parking” signs along a nearby fence. A developer has been building a grocery store in the neighborhood, and the construction company needed to close the road. I could swear the signs weren’t there when I parked, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong.

The road to finding a towed car in D.C.

But with the sign, and shame, came great hope: If Charlene was breaking the rules, surely Charlene had been towed. It might cost me, but my car would be safe.

I called the number on the signs, leading me to an executive with the developer. He said the police department had ordered the cars towed.

When I popped into the police station, the officer behind the desk said they didn’t call for the tow. Rather, the D.C. Department of Public Works was responsible. My car likely had been relocated within the neighborhood, he said.

I called Public Works. “What’s your tag number?” the woman on the line asked.

Ugh. I didn’t have it memorized.

Lesson No. 1: Keep your license plate number stored in your phone or your brain.

After tearing through files at home, I called Public Works again. I provided the Vehicle Identification Number, license plate number, date towed, make, model, color — but the woman couldn’t find a trace of Charlene in the system. I tried the city’s online towed vehicle locator. Still nothing.

Panic.

I set out on my bicycle to search. After 30 minutes, one of those typical Washington summer downpours hit. I was soaked.

I ditched the bike and called a friend. We drove aimlessly around my neighborhood, trying to spot the red top of my RAV4. No luck. It was getting dark. I headed home.

Lesson No. 2: The people you talk to when looking for your car will give you different answers — often completely conflicting — about where it might be.

On Thursday morning, I called the towing dispatcher again, hoping a different person would know a different way to search the system. Still nothing. But the dispatcher said she’d transfer me to 911. I was shocked, thinking that 911 seemed like overkill for a missing car.

But in the District, 911 is also a non-emergency number. Outside of Public Works, the police department can also call for vehicles to be towed. They may have separate records that towing dispatch might not have, I was told.

After getting transferred to several departments — with each bouncing me back to the last — and calling the impoundment lot in Southwest Washington, the 911 operator told me to report my car stolen. When I did, the officer on the phone spent several hours calling around to search. Coming up empty-handed, she filed my stolen vehicle report.

Lesson No. 3: When you report you’re the victim of car theft, people talk to you a lot like one of your relatives just died. They say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” They call you “sweetheart” and “dear.” They think honeyed tones will help you cope with missing one of the most expensive things you might ever own outside of a home. It doesn’t.

Grief. Giving up because that’s really the only thing that makes sense at this point. There’s a black hole, and Charlene is in it.

The Internet makes it worse, because apparently this happens a lot.

“So DC Public Works towed and lost your car? Welcome to the District,” read a Web site called I Spy Things DC. People recounted horror stories of drivers reporting their cars stolen, buying a new set of wheels and then stumbling onto the old car months later. detailing the drama

City officials must often relocate cars with little notice, such as when they have to make way for the presidential motorcade, said Linda Grant, a spokeswoman for Public Works. The city, however, doesn’t keep track of how often cars are moved and lost.

“Other D.C. agencies and private companies may tow vehicles,” Grant said. “While it is required to enter their towed vehicles in the system, that doesn’t always happen.”

In 2011, the District towed about 39,200 vehicles, said John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs for AAA MidAtlantic. That’s an average of more than 107 each day. Of those, about 27,300 — or 70 percent — are moved to a street near where they were originally parked.

“Given the sheer volume of how many cars in the District get towed, it’s amazing that more don’t get lost,” Townsend said.

Friday morning, I made one last-ditch effort to find my car.

Back at the police station, the fourth officer I spoke with said the construction company had called for the tow. But three men at the building site said the construction company hadn’t made the call.

But the men said they saw a truck haul Charlene away — they remembered my Arizona plates, with the cactus and desert sun — with the truck returning about every five minutes to snatch another car off the street and into oblivion. At least I knew oblivion had to be close by. I again stopped at the police station.

That’s when I happened to catch another officer, who was on duty when the cars were towed Tuesday. He offered to drive me around for another search.

Joy. After 15 minutes, there she was: all 4,400 pounds of glorious Japanese engineering. The city had moved Charlene to the other side of Wisconsin Avenue.There was a $50 ticket under a wiper. Charlene and I were reunited, two blocks away from where I parked her.

Lessons No. 4 and No. 5: Be careful where you park. But if you find yourself in car limbo, don’t give up. Persistence and dumb luck can pay off.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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