Sometimes you find yourself the butt of a cosmic joke. At least, that's how I felt on Aug. 20, 2013, when I stepped outside my Anchorage home to find an empty parking space where my car should have been, one day before heading abroad on a much-anticipated trip.
Stolen overnight, my car had journeyed north one final time. At the helm were three men who would later be held at gunpoint as they attempted to steal another car in Glennallen and return home to Anchorage. But I wouldn't know the full story until I came back to Alaska.
My car, a silver 1995 Subaru Legacy, had been something of a gift from family friends. I had moved back to my hometown of Fairbanks after college, and they had an extra car that their daughter used in high school. “Suby Sam” was its name, although I never took to calling it anything beside “my car.”
After a few years of driving it, I purchased the car for a couple thousand dollars. It ran well, I maintained it regularly, and when the time came to move to Anchorage, the car ran me dutifully back and forth, 365 miles each way, a handful of times during my first year in Alaska’s largest city.
On Aug. 19, 2013, rain was pouring as I parked outside my Spenard home. Usually, I locked the car doors but that evening I ran into the house without thinking. Perhaps subconsciously, I thought the heavy cover of rain would provide protection of some sort, shielding Suby Sam and my home from intruders. Perhaps the men who stole my car later that night felt that same cover of protection under stormy skies.
That night's downpour was the hardest I had ever experienced during my first 15 months in Anchorage. I like the sound of rain, and I smiled as I fell asleep to its hammering on the attic bedroom roof.
The next morning, I stepped outside to go to work but stopped halfway down the driveway, staring in disbelief at the empty parking space. My initial thoughts were confused. I had an awkward moment second-guessing whether I had actually parked at home the night before. And then the realization rolled over me: Suby Sam was gone!
Panic, fear, violation, sadness rolled over me in waves.
And then, I laughed.
Acute stress, then this
I was leaving for New Zealand in 24 hours. I had a long list of errands to run and stories to write at work. Life at that time was already defined by other acute changes and stress. Adding a stolen car to the mix was truly ridiculous.
Logically, I knew that this was going to be a pain in the ass. But in some strange way, I felt the universe was telling me not to worry about events out of my control. This would be just another notch in my belt of life experiences. Make the best of it.
I called work first and then the police. I filed my police report, and told them I was heading out of the country. They advised me that if the police found my car, I would have only 30 minutes or so to pick it up. After that it would be towed and impounded. Fees would continue to rack up the longer my car was in the lot. Oh, great.
My landlord, a retired and good-hearted man, offered to be the point of contact while I was gone. He seemed to be the most reliable contact for spur-of-the-moment calls from the police, and I will forever be grateful for his offer.
An hour later, I would take the first of many cab rides to work. Cab dispatchers would soon recognize my number and call me by name.
I knew my car was gone, likely for good, but I still didn’t understand how. Hot-wired? Is that really a thing? And then, a clue came in a flash in my mind’s eye -- a spare key in the center dash. I had put it there five years ago, when I lived in the woods in Fairbanks and leaving my car unlocked was no concern. It must have still been in there. Leftovers from another life.
A coworker let me borrow his car to complete the errands before the New Zealand trip. As I drove around in the borrowed vehicle, my car was in Glennallen, nearly 200 miles to the northeast, I would later learn. The three young men who had taken it from my driveway had driven to the small town of 500 for reasons still unclear to me. There they had crashed it into a ditch, thrown rocks at it, stripped Suby Sam of all its contents.
Having wrecked the car, they were left stranded in Glennallen for three days before trying to steal another car from a Tazlina home 5 miles south of Glennallen. This time, the homeowner caught them and held them at gunpoint. They were arrested that day.
I didn’t know any of this until I returned home. After flying to New Zealand, I called Glennallen police and learned only that my car had been found in a ditch and was a total loss. After hearing that, and being assured that I wouldn’t face any impound fees in Glennallen, I signed off from my Alaska life for a while.
Now I'm the 'victim'
Had I been reading the Alaska news, I might have seen the story of Suby Sam’s last journey north on the website of Alaska Dispatch, my employer. A coworker wrote the story up after the men were arrested. Nobody in the office connected the dots.
When I returned home a few weeks later, I learned the whole story. “That was your car?” asked friends who had seen the story. I saw pictures of my totaled car, its badly damaged exterior and broken windows.
I had tried to avoid developing an emotional attachment to the car. For me, cars are a way to get from Point A to Point B. But some part of my ego must have been wrapped up in Suby Sam, because my heart broke, just a little.
I started the process rolling on collecting insurance money. Meanwhile I got used to walking, taking cabs and being a general inconvenience to friends. I found another car, almost identical to my last, in early October. I thought about what I might say to the men who stole Suby Sam.
I imagined them as lost souls, young men from rough childhoods. I pictured them as bored that night, looking for something to do and, like many young people, ignoring potential consequences. I wanted to tell them that life gets better, that people can change, that the misguided choices we make when we are young can help us to carve out better paths over the long run.
As winter rolled in, I knew their trials were coming up but heard nothing from prosecutors. The state didn’t contact me until after the first sentencing had already passed. When I asked why, the paralegal noted high turnover in the office, and some shuffling of files. The 18-year-old had received a suspended jail sentence.
In mid-December, I listened in to the second sentencing. As a reporter who sometimes covers crime, it was surreal to be called the “victim” in the case. My story was nothing compared to some of the cases I had seen, and I was uncomfortable having that title, when my actual trauma had been so minimal.
The 22-year-old man before the judge had a long rap sheet. He was already on probation for felony theft. The judge sentenced him to roughly eight months in jail, and a year for probation violations. The man was bitter, angry that his sentence was harsher than those of his peers. He bickered with the judge, who explained that his history affected the sentence. The judge asked me if I had anything to say. I didn’t.
A year has passed since Suby Sam was lifted from my driveway. The 22-year-old remains in jail. I’m still waiting for restitution from the men. The passing of time has draped a veil over the details of memories, and it appears almost like a dream now. But at times it still makes me laugh. I swear I can hear the universe laughing too.