Living in a spread-out city that's cold most of the year makes Anchorage people car people. We get attached to our cars. We decal. We bumper sticker. We personalize our plates. Poli Gaiduk is a perfect example.
She owns a 2006 Audi TT. Plate: MYLILU. Color (get your shades): Papaya orange.
"You see my car once, even if you just glance at it, you won't forget it," she said.
That's exactly how she outsmarted car thieves a few weeks ago.
There's a lot of sentiment riding on Gaiduk's four wheels. Her previous car, which was yellow, was totaled six years ago by a drunk driver. She walked away from the accident. Her second bright car is an homage to the first. The Audi was also the preferred haunt of her long-haired German Shepherd, Lilu. Lilu died earlier this month at age 12. Gaiduk got plates in her honor.
Not long after her new plates arrived, on Friday, Aug. 17, Gaiduk parked her car outside the Dimond Center while she ran a quick errand with her 2-year-old daughter. When she came out, her orange Audi was gone.
She called police and mall security. Mall cameras caught two men in a black Chevrolet pickup stopping by her car, mall security told her. One got out, hopped in the Audi, and they both drove away, she said.
Gaiduk suspects her automatic lock button didn't lock the car. Or maybe she forgot to push it. Or maybe they broke in. She usually carries an extra key on the glove compartment. She has no idea, though, how anyone would know that. And they took it in the middle of a busy parking lot. How could it happen?
"I could not sleep. It was beyond belief. I couldn't believe somebody would steal a car like mine. You can see it a mile away!"
She loved that car right down to the dog hair between its seats. She had to get it back.
That night, Gaiduk, a stay-at-home mom, took to the streets. She cruised through the parking lots at Chilkoot Charlie's and The Bush Company and outside downtown bars. She called all the contacts in her cell phone. She talked to police officers on the night shift and stopped cab drivers. She searched until 4 a.m., but the car was nowhere.
The next day she made fliers. She wanted police to send out a message over the radio asking officers to be on the lookout for her car, but they told her they didn't do that. So she went to the office of Checker Cab and asked if the company would let drivers know to keep an eye out. If they found her car, she said, she'd pay a $500 reward. Checker Cab agreed to help, but Gaiduk's hope was waning.
"My husband was thinking they already took (the car) apart and painted it a different color," she said.
An hour later, her phone rang. A tip from a cabbie: he'd spotted the car on Tudor Road.
About that time, another cab driver, Sean Walsh, was winding up his shift, heading down Lake Otis when an orange car caught his eye. He moved smoothly onto its tail. He asked the Checker Cab dispatcher to call the police. Once his dispatcher was talking to the police dispatcher, he pulled alongside the cab and radioed a description of the driver: blonde hair, goatee. They headed toward an industrial area near Potter Road.
"He finally caught on that I was on to him, " Walsh said. "He took off."
Walsh hung back. He didn't want to give chase. Not his job, he said.
"I'm not going to do anything stupid."
The police made a little road block on Potter, he said. The last thing Walsh saw was officers stopping the orange Audi with guns drawn. His shift was over, he said, and he took his car back for the next driver.
Police arrested the Audi driver, Ronald Griffith, 27, and charged him with car theft, according to Marlene Lammers with the Anchorage Police Department.
He told officers he didn't steal the car, but was driving it from Manoog's Isle trailer court to a body shop at 38th Avenue and Arctic Boulevard, she said.
Court records show this wasn't Griffith's first run-in with police.
Gaiduk got to the scene after the officers made the arrest. One of them gave her back her keys and told her she could take her car. It wasn't damaged and her daughter's car seat was still inside. A few other things, including her camera and a sentimental ceramic cast of a dog paw, were missing. She also noticed one key she didn't recognize attached to the key ring. It was a key for a Chevrolet.
Police tell her they are investigating, but she's impatient at the pace. The men in the Dimond Center security video are likely still out there, stealing other cars, she said. Those owners might not be so lucky.