Eugene Levi looked out the window of his Columbia Heights apartment last Monday morning and saw his 1965 Dodge Dart in the lot behind the building. He looked again a few minutes later . . . no Dodge.
One hour later, Levi found his car six miles away -- flattened, with six equally horizontal autos stacked atop it at a scrap yard in Kenilworth.
"I looked at my car," said the former construction worker of his old, white Dart, "and I started to cry."
Levi's car had been stolen and junked for about 50 cents per 100 pounds, or about $12.50 for the 2,500-pound auto. About 3,500 cars are stolen each year in Washington, and 13 percent of them are never found. Police believe that most of those vehicles unaccounted for are junked and destroyed, along with hundreds of autos abandoned in alleys and on parking lots and side streets.
Levi's white Dodge had been rushed across the DC. line into Maryland, where the nearest auto shredder is located.
Maryland laws allow junk dealers to accept cars on the authority of no more than a signature from the person delivering them, and Washington police said Joseph Smith and Sons, Inc. broke no law by destroying Levi's car since workers didn't know it was stolen.
Levi's Dodge Dart didn't raise any suspicions, said R. Paul Smith, president of the 60-year-old scrap metal firm, so in a matter of minutes, it had been flattened. Before the day ended, it was "pulverized" -- chewed up by scrap-eating machines that reduced the battered chassis to fist-sized chunks in 1 1/2 minutes.
"It's a real good car," Levi, 40, said, talking for a moment as if the car were not a heap of scrap metal chunks. "Very easy to fix, and $10 of gas is good for two weeks."
It was simple coincidence that Levi stumbled onto the trail of his missing auto. "I'm looking out my window," he recalled, "and I see my car, and then I look again and it's gone. So I run out back and two guys painting back there tell me that this red truck came and took my car."
Levi and his wife, Evelyn Scott, called D.C. police.
"We asked the police where someone would take a car like ours and they said probably out to Smith Brothers in Maryland," said Scott.
In hot pursuit, the couple jumped into their other car and headed for the scrap metal company on Kenilworth Avenue, where Levi said they arrived about 12:30 p.m. Smith and Sons is one of the four largest scrap-metal processors in Maryland and Northern Virginia, handling about 45,000 junked cars a year.
Employes think the Levi car was delivered with several other cars on the red truck about noon. When the Levis arrived, it had been stripped of its gas tank and wheels, and was sandwiched between 10 other cars in a multicolored stack. The windshield was shattered and the roof rested on the door frames.
"We walked around back and there was my car," Levi said. "All flat like a pancake."
Paul Smith, the third generation of Smiths to run the company, said 99 percent of all cars wrecked in his yard are not suspected of being stolen.
"If we have any question about the car, we put it aside and check it out." Smith said. "We get in trouble for being so honest.You handle a number of stolen cars [inadvertently]; it's just part of the business."
Levi's 16-year-old car was old enough to suggest that it was just another junker, Smith said.
D.C. police detective William Manacle confirmed that the car was brought to the yard aboard a red flatbed truck. The Maryland form attesting that the car wasn't stolen was duly signed in the name of John Robinson. No serial number plate was turned in as the company usually requires. Sometimes, explained Smith, there is no plate to turn in.
"I pretty well know all the guys [who sell cars to the company]; I want to know them," Smith said. He knows Robinson as a regular customer who is "a nice guy with a big smile who has more problems than most. We keep an eye on him but I don't think he's dishonest. Maybe he's just careless."
Manacle, who is investigating the Levi case, says that older cars parked in back lots and in alleys are often snatched by roving drivers with flat-bed trucks equipped with a winch or with tow trucks.
"Then it becomes a race between the truck driver and the police department to get to the scrappers," he said. "When they get there they can sign any name they want on that form. No one checks."
"It may be nine months till the state of Maryland routinely notifies us that one of our stolen cars was destroyed at the scrap yard," Manacle said.
Scott recently showed a visitor the exact spot where the Dodge Dart, the couple's favorite car, had been parked directly behind their apartment house in the 3000 block of 15th Street NW.
As she stared at the empty spot that had served as the car's parking space for the past three years, she hit one fist against the other in anger and frustration.
"We came so close to saving it," she said. "It's like just missing heaven or being one number off on the lottery. If only we could have gotten to the junkyard faster. But I guess we're lucky. At least we know what happened to our car."