By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; 10:15 PM
Martena Clinton drove to the Congressional Black Caucus dinner at the Washington Convention Center on Saturday with high expectations. A friend had arranged a ticket, and Clinton wore a special diamond pendant over her black dress. She parked in a handicapped spot close to the intersection of 9th Street and Mount Vernon Place and glanced in the mirror. She decided the diamond pendant didn't go with her dress, took it off and put it in a console.
She displayed a handicapped tag prominently, locked her car and checked with a police officer who happened to be parked right behind her. He assured her the spot was legal. Clinton put her credit cards, cash and makeup in a pocketbook and left it in the trunk, carrying a small purse into the dinner. It was 5:30 p.m.
When she emerged from the dinner at 11:30 p.m., her black 1994 Lexus was gone.
The police officer who responded to Clinton's distressed call told her that the Secret Service had done what many Washingtonians have grown begrudgingly used to: They ordered numerous cars removed from the area as a security precaution because President Obama was speaking at the dinner.
It should have been simple for Clinton to find her car - police told her that relocated vehicles are typically towed to different spots within a few blocks - but this time police had not kept track of where they had moved it. The Lexus was lost.
District police searched for the car for two hours Saturday night, circling the neighborhood again and again. Clinton, who is a travel consultant, and Gardine Tiggle, the friend who invited her to the dinner, waited at the spot immediately outside the convention center where Clinton had parked the Lexus. Clinton has the handicapped tag because her husband suffered a stroke.
By 1:30 a.m., police had searched a one-mile radius of the convention center and found not a trace of the car.
Embarrassed about the missing vehicle, an officer called area hotels and helped Clinton find a room for the night. On Sunday morning, police resumed the search. Still nothing.
"We don't know if it has been lost or stolen," said Lt. Jonathan Munk, of the 3rd District, who was supervising the search. "I was told the cars were relocated, but we don't know. It could have been stolen. We just don't know."
District police did not respond to a reporter's additional calls and e-mail requests for information.
The possibility that Clinton's car had been stolen before police relocated the group of parked cars - which could have explained why officers did not have a record of the car being moved - was pooh-poohed by Clinton and Tiggle. It made no sense that someone would steal an old Lexus parked in a high-traffic area swarming with police and Secret Service agents, they said.
Clinton said she accepted that people in Washington are sometimes inconvenienced by presidential security, and she said she's okay with the idea, generally. But it seemed incomprehensible to her that someone's car could be lost as a result.
"I can't believe this," Clinton, 64, of Randallsville, Md., said in an interview Sunday morning. "I am the caregiver for my 95-year-old mother, whom I take to church every Sunday. The police did not put a record of the car in the system. It's a mess. . . . I am getting very upset."
Tiggle spent the night with Clinton at a downtown hotel, and then on Sunday they called police, the mayor's office and the Secret Service. They said they were shuffled from one office to another in an endless rigamarole.
"We have been told at least four times that this is an issue they are having with several vehicles," said Tiggle, speaking of the District police. "It is their responsibility. They moved it. They tell us, 'If we find the car' - not when we find the car - 'we will call you. If we cannot find it in 30 days, you should call your insurance company.' This is totally insane."
Clinton said police told her that while the District's tow trucks might have moved the car, the trucks are operated by civilians who are supposed to note the car's license plate number and new location. That had not happened. Police also said they did not have a roster of tow-truck operators and therefore could not track down who moved the car.
Police did not answer questions about how the process should normally work, but cars that are relocated and put into police records should not be difficult to find if a driver can provide police with a license plate number.
Tiggle, a practitioner of meditation, urged her friend to stay positive. But Tiggle also was embarrassed that it was her invitation that led to the car's vanishing. With no change of clothes and the batteries on their cellphones running low, Tiggle asked her husband to come down from their home in Mitchellville, Md., with supplies and cellphone chargers.
When the police search failed to produce the car by Sunday afternoon, Clinton called a reporter to say her friend was driving her home. Tiggle was still urging a positive outlook.
"Visualize a black car," Tiggle was saying repeatedly. "See yourself getting it back. Do it with emotion."
But Clinton had already passed from dejection into despair. The police seemed disinterested and had stopped returning her calls. The car, the pocketbook, and the diamond necklace were history.
Tiggle's GPS told her to make a right turn onto New York Avenue NW. They were around the corner from the convention center and about a block from the police building at 501 New York Ave. Suddenly, Tiggle burst out: "There it is!"
"What?" Clinton asked, still on the phone with a reporter.
"The car, the black car!"
"She found it!" Clinton exclaimed.
The Lexus was in front of 628 New York Ave. NW, a half-block from the convention center. It had been parked - without any indication that law enforcement had left it there - in a no-parking zone.
And it was right in front of a fire hydrant. It had not been ticketed.
"If you can't find a car within a block from the convention center - that you moved - how are you going to find anyone else?" Tiggle said a few moments after Clinton ensured that the diamond pendant and her pocketbook were still inside the car. "And put it in a tow zone in front of a fire hydrant?"
An hour later, Clinton was nearly home. She had not called police to report that her lost car had been found.
Remembering how police had stopped responding to her pleas - and considering the $165 hotel bill she had just footed - she fumed: "Let 'em keep looking."