For two months, in sun and rain, the blue Chevy station wagon sat untouched, windows down, keys in the ignition and the tank full of gas.
The car was parked three blocks from Second District Police headquarters at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. During that time, apparently no one bothered the vehicle or its contents: a cosmetic bag, a straw eyeglass case and $10,000 in cash.
"Must've been three million policemen drive by that car everyday," said Officer Nicholas A. Maiorca of the Second District abandoned auto squad.
Maiorca found the cash, in $50 and $100 bills, during a routine inventory of the car on June 12 after it was towed to the impoundment lot at the Second District. The money was stuffed in the eyeglass case and sat for months on the car's front seat.
"I opened that thing up and I looked and I looked again," Maiorca said, his eyes popping. "I thought it was paper money."
After the find, Maiorca rushed into the small shed at the edge of the station's impoundment lot.
"I counted out $4,000. Then I counted up to $6,000 and I still had a lot of money in my hand," Maiorca said. "I thought, man, there's a million dollars here."
The car, cosmetic bag, eyeglass case, and cash, it was later discovered, belonged to a retired female military officer from Ardmore, Pa. She left the money in the car during a trip to Washington in April when two hitchhikers she picked up stole her car, leaving her stranded at a rest stop in Rock Creek Park.
The hitchhikers later left the car in a Northwest neighborhood off Wisconsin Avenue.
"If it had been downtown it would've been gone," Maiorca said.
There are many stories locked inside the cars that pass through the city's auto impoundment lots. For the last eight years Maiorca, who is the Second District's one-man abandoned auto squad, has been discovering them.
This summer, the car used by thieves who took several valuable pistols from the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame in Waco, Tex., wound up in his lot with the guns still inside.
Other cars hold mysteries that are not as easily solved.
When Maiorca impounded an abandoned '67 Chevy Camaro, the name of the owner was traced through the car's license plates but police couldn't locate him.
"The guy was in the hospital, unconscious for three months," Maiorca said. "When he finally got well, the car had been sold at public auction."
District law imposes a 72-hour time limit for vehicles parked on public space. The police department can legally impound the car after that, but the practice is for police to place a warning sticker on the vehicle three days before it is towed to a District station.
From there, a vehicle may be hauled to a local junk yard, if its condition is bad enough. Otherwise, the D.C. Department of Environmental Services (DES) tows it to the city's impoundment lot at Blue Plains in far Southeast Washington three to 10 days after police impound it. Owners have 60 days to claim a vehicle before it can be sold at public auction.
"If that one makes it to Blue Plains something's wrong," Maiorca said, pointing to a silver Rolls Royce parked in the lot last week.
During the first six months of 1981, a total of 1,269 vehicles were impounded from Washington streets. Of that number, 926 were towed to Blue Plains and 343 were junked, according to DES. Some 1,577 vehicles ticketed for impoundment were removed before police tow trucks even arrived. "More people have been moving their cars these days," said a DES employe.
Maiorca rarely finds large amounts of cash, valuables or drugs in the 200 vehicles he handles in an average month. The '75 Chevy station wagon was a different story, however.
Because of the condition of the car, the lack of a stolen auto complaint or report of lost money, police suspected foul play. But the hitchhikers apparently were more interested in joyriding than in the woman or her belongings.
Located by police who traced her Pennsylvania license plates, the 62-year-old woman said she had not reported the theft or the loss of her money.
"Anybody who took it would've been off scot-free. . . . She told me she didn't want to get the boys in trouble," Maiorca said. "She took a bus back home that day."
Two weeks after his discovery of the money, Maiorca met the woman at Union Station and took her to retrieve her property.
After counting the eighty $100 bills and forty $50 bills, Maiorca said, the woman offered to reward him for his efforts. She invited him to lunch.
The woman, reportedly prone to absentmindedness, "treated me to a cheeseburger and a coke," Maiorca remembered weeks later.
Then, dressed in a red and white muumuu, she got in her car and started the long drive home.
"I was really razzed," Maiorca said. "All the guys told me you usually get 10 percent of the money in cases like this."