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The Perfect Sting

He had a cool plan for nabbing the guy who stole his car. But it required the cops to show a little interest.

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Andy Holen was worn out and a bit scatterbrained when he returned to his Edgewater apartment around midnight on July 9. He'd put in a long day at the Aon Center, where he's an attorney, and after pulling into his parking space in the alley behind his apartment building he dragged himself out of his '95 Maxima, leaving his wallet sitting atop a pile of papers on the passenger seat. He also didn't remember the spare key his old roommate had left in the glove compartment weeks earlier.

The next morning, a Saturday, he slept in. Later, when he was setting out to run an errand, he discovered his car was gone. He reported the theft to the police and canceled his credit cards just after someone had used his Citibank card to buy gas and lunch at McDonald's and had attempted to charge $500 worth of merchandise at a women's clothing store in far north suburban Hainesville. Luckily, the credit company thought that purchase was suspicious enough to block it.

Holen didn't have theft insurance. He'd bought the car secondhand four years earlier and never thought it was worth much, so about a year ago he'd downgraded his policy to save a couple hundred bucks. He figured the car for a total loss. Holen, who plays on a couple of soccer teams, also lost his cleats, pads, socks, two balls, half a case of bottled water, and about 30 CDs he'd left in the car. The police department issued him a "victim information notice" acknowledging the theft, but he assumed he'd never see the car again. Over the next couple of weeks he missed a handful of soccer matches while he shopped around for a new ride.

Two Fridays later he was working late again. His office phone rang around 6:30, and he found himself talking to a stranger who must have found the business cards in his wallet.

"First thing he said was, 'Do you want your car back?'" says Holen, who guessed the caller was a white male somewhere between 25 and 35 years old. Holen said he did, and the caller gave him instructions. At 8 PM he was to leave $200 cash in an envelope in the cabinet under the bathroom sink of Standee's Snack 'n' Dine on Granville. The caller promised to call Holen back after he picked up the money and tell him where his car was. If he involved the police he'd never see it again.

Holen wasn't desperate for the car, so he haggled. Since his debit card hadn't been replaced he wasn't sure he could raise the cash and make it to the diner in time. Plus he had a date later that evening. Couldn't they do it on Saturday?

"No, no, no," said the thief. "Saturday is not really good for me. It's gotta be tonight."

But how could Holen know the car was still in good shape? Where were his soccer gear and CDs? The thief promised him the car was in the same condition and that all his stuff was still inside. Holen said he had some things to finish up and told him to call his cell phone in half an hour. Then he hung up and called 911. He arranged to meet a squad car outside the Aon Center that would take him up to Edgewater. "I didn't know what they were going to do," he says, "but I thought it would be nice to catch this guy." While he waited outside for the police the thief called back.

"He says, 'So are we going to do this transaction tonight?'" Holen said he'd try to get there by 8:30 but couldn't promise. About 45 minutes later the police arrived, checked his caller ID, and figured out the thief was calling from a pay phone. Unfortunately, Standee's was in the 24th District, out of their jurisdiction. He'd have to go home and call 911 from there.

He made it back to his apartment around 7:45 and called again. The dispatcher said they'd send a car over, but Holen was worried about the time.

"Look, I'm supposed to make this drop by 8:30," he said. "How long is it gonna take for this squad to show up?" The dispatcher wouldn't commit to a time so Holen suggested he start walking the three blocks up to Granville and meet the police along the way. The dispatcher told him to call back when he got close to the restaurant. From a convenience store about a block away from Standee's he explained the situation to a different operator. Again a squad car was promised. Holen called back at 8:15 when no car had arrived, and a third time at 8:45--at which point he said, "Screw this." He didn't have $200 anyway, so he decided to leave a note for the thief, hoping he could set up a sting some time when the police might be more responsive.

Holen didn't know this, but the previous afternoon the city's 911 call center had suffered a power outage that backed up the system. Calls were rerouted to the nonemergency 311 center, and squad cars had to take assignments over their radios instead of their portable data terminals, or PDTs. Walking toward Standee's, Holen spotted a patrol car and flagged down the officer. "He said, 'First of all, 911 has been down for a couple days now. It's been very difficult to communicate with the station.'"

"I said, 'If you guys weren't going to be able to come out here on time why didn't you just tell me?' He's like, 'Well, we don't like to tell people we can't help them.'" Besides, said the cop, Holen's car had probably been stripped and sold weeks ago. Happens all the time. "There's probably nothing we can do," said the cop. "You shouldn't be handling this by yourself anyway."

The cop agreed to wait around until Holen left the note. Then Holen headed home to prepare for his date. He got out of the shower at 9:30 and the thief called again. "How come you didn't leave the money?" he said. And he'd seen Holen talking to the cop outside the restaurant. "I told you if you involved the police you'd never see the car again."

"I said, 'Fuck it. I don't even want to deal with this shit. How do I even know you have my car? You're a thief. Why should I trust you?'"

"I guarantee you I have the car," said the man. "I swear on my daughter's honor that if you had left that money you would have your car right now." Yet the man still wanted to make a deal. "I don't need your car anymore," he told Holen, "because I've obtained another one."

"Even if I wanted to do it I can't," said Holen. "You stole my bank card, remember?" He said he only had $45 on him and the most he could get that night was $50 more if he bought something at the Dominick's up the street on his new Discover card. Fine, said the man. Holen offered to meet him at the supermarket and exchange the money for the car, but the man said he was afraid of being identified. He told Holen to put the money in an envelope and slide it under the change machine in the store. Once he had his money he'd call back and tell Holen where to find the car.

"All right," said Holen. "I'll give it a shot. But I'm in a rush. We've got to do it right now."

Holen started walking. On the way he spotted a police car around the corner from the store on Thorndale. The officers listened to Holen's story and hailed a pair of plainclothes cops who happened by in an unmarked car. For the ninth time that night Holen explained the situation to the police. "If you guys just go in there and hang out you can nab him when he grabs the envelope," he said. He says the cops agreed enthusiastically. He went into the store, selected a pack of gum and some Altoids, and waited in the checkout line. One of the cops, dressed in black and wearing his utility belt, entered the store and made eye contact with Holen. The cop scoped out the Coinmaster machine where Holen had been told to leave the money and moved deeper into the produce section, out of sight. "I was kind of hoping he was in the back shaking melons, waiting for this to happen," says Holen.

Holen got his change, put the money in a deposit envelope from the store's branch bank, slid it under the machine, and walked outside to wait.

After about ten minutes he thought the cop might have already busted the thief, so he went back inside. The money was missing and there was no sign of the cop.

Once he shook off the shock, he began to worry about the rest of the evening. How was he going to get cash for his date? As he got on the phone to his credit card company, hoping it would front him some money, the thief called.

"So you're running a little low on cash, aren'tcha?" he asked. He told Holen his car was parked on Morse between Sheridan and the Red Line, about 14 blocks north. "He told me I might want to get some gas," says Holen. "So I thanked him for telling me. Why the hell did I thank him?"

Holen persuaded Discover to issue him a PIN for his card and he withdrew more cash. He caught a cab and found his car exactly where the thief said it would be, though not quite in the promised condition. There was an ugly scrape under the right headlight, a big dent in front of the driver's side front wheel, and a loose door seal. The thief had put some 500 miles on it, collected four parking tickets, and, true to his word, left an empty tank. Gone were much of Holen's soccer equipment, his water, a pair of tennis rackets, and his CDs, but the thief had left behind a few things of his own: discs by Portishead, the Smut Peddlers, the Neptunes, and U2 and the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty DVD. Pink Floyd's The Final Cut was still in the disc player, and in the trunk a bizarre-looking but brand-new pair of training shoes with weights attached to the soles were still in their box.

Holen dialed 911 to call off the police. "Until we see you with the car it's still considered hot," he was told. They said they had no record of an undercover officer assisting anyone at Dominick's. Holen gave up for the night and went out on his date, which he says was a mixed success: "I had a good story, but my date ended up puking."

The next morning an officer came to Holen's apartment to take a report.

"He thought I set up a very good sting," he says. "He was really surprised they didn't do anything about it. He thought it would have been a great pinch for those two undercover guys." But the officer's PDT still wasn't working, so he couldn't register the recovery from his squad car. Holen would have to take the car down to the police station. "I ran into that problem every step of the way," he says. "Why couldn't they just tell me that before they sent him out?"

At the 24th District station Holen spoke to an officer at the front desk about the parking tickets the thief had racked up. As he unspooled his tale yet again, other officers perked up their ears. "So are you saying he's been parking illegally?" said one cop. Holen was told he could appeal the parking tickets, but then they gave him a talk for not having a city sticker. "I asked about the undercover cop and they told me, 'We have lots of undercover cops. It could have been anybody.'"

Police spokesman Robert Cargie says the undercover officers probably just missed the guy, and if that was the case it wouldn't have gone out over the radio. Patrol officers had no problem receiving assignments the day after the blackout, he says. "There were some limitations in communication when it comes to data, but not when it comes to assigning cars or connecting with any specific station. Either the officer didn't know, or this person misunderstood him." Cargie said Holen was probably just considered "not a priority call."

Holen figures his thief must be a neighborhood guy. He got his parking tickets by leaving the car during street cleaning on the same block of Morse it was recovered from, and he was familiar with the bathroom in Standee's and the coin machine in Dominick's. Holen still can't imagine what happened to his sting partner. "Either he got a more important call and didn't bother to tell me or he saw a nice piece of tail on the other side of the store. Maybe he decided to grab a Ho Ho. I have no idea."

On August 9, a month after his Maxima was taken, Holen dropped 13 grand on a "bitchin'" '01 gunmetal blue Mustang GT with 45,000 miles on it. Two days after that, his younger brother Steven, visiting from Arizona, borrowed the car to catch a movie in Evanston with a friend. While they were sitting at the intersection of Greenleaf and Chicago, a black Celica plowed into the back of Holen's new car. According to the police report, the driver of the Celica "put his car in reverse, backed up, and proceeded to the intersection. He turned right on Greenleaf and headed east. He took another right about 2 blocks down."

Steven tried to follow, but a safety feature on the Mustang cut off its fuel line and the Celica dusted him. However, he and his friend got a look at the driver and caught the first three characters of his plate. The Celica also had extensive hood damage, and at least one headlight had been knocked out. Steven is something of a gearhead, and was later able to figure out that the Celica was probably an early-90s model.

The officer on the scene told Steven there wasn't anything he could do with a partial plate number and that he might want to try calling the secretary of state's office. The next day Holen called four or five numbers before reaching Rod Smith, a data processing administrator in Springfield who told him he could run the plate if a police officer requested it, but otherwise that kind of search would cost him more than $500.

It wasn't until August 16 that the case was assigned to an Evanston police investigator. A few days later, Holen heard from the officer, who told him the state would run the plate but it would take a few days. Fifteen days after the hit and run, the officer called back and said a few potential cars had been identified. "He appears ready to conduct a limited but reasonable investigation," says Holen. "He did mention, however, that he has never solved a partial-plate hit and run."

In the meantime, Holen figured out how to run partial-plate numbers on Westlaw. He found between 30 and 40 possible matches, three of them on the north side. He's still banking on police assistance: "If I find something, it will probably make a good story, but I'll give the cops first dibs."

Holen's brother and his friend suffered some neck pain that went away after a few days. The bitchin' Mustang came out a little worse, sustaining damage to the bumper and the muffler. Since he has a $1,000 deductible he didn't call his insurance company. The new scratches and dents hurt. "I don't want to be driving around in a beater so quickly," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, A. Jackson.

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