"What if there was a body in the back seat?" and other questions I never thought I'd be asked: How my car and camera were stolen

On July 22, I woke up at around 9 a.m. and momentarily forgot about what happened a few hours earlier. Even now, I forget that it was real, because it sounds like a silly story that you only hear of happening to other people. Sometime between 12:50 a.m. and 2 a.m., my rental car was stolen from a parking lot by Lake Nokomis along with all of my belongings, including my camera gear that I had in tow from shooting a concert Saturday evening.

Why did I have a rental car? Let's start from the very beginning. I was rear-ended in an accident on I-35W by a woman who was not paying attention to the stopped traffic in the exit ramp to I-94. My car wound up with around $7,000 in damage and it needed to be in the shop for at least 10 business days. I wound up driving a Chevy Impala in the meantime so I could get to and from work. I bought additional insurance when I rented the car: in case the rental car was involved in an accident, the insurance would cover the damages to the other vehicle, including medical fees and damage to the car. At the time, I felt like it was just a way to squeeze money from me as a cautious driver. $15 a day wasn't too terrible, I thought. I need a safety net. I agreed, and as I was signing the papers, I told the rental car representative, "With the luck I've had, I better add on the insurance." We both laughed. 

Late Saturday night, I decided to meet up with a friend who was near Lake Nokomis. I'd suffered through a long Saturday, and I felt like staying out a little bit longer with good company instead of going home. I didn't feel like taking everything out of my car and dragging it with me in the park, so I only brought my keys with me. I kept my valuables out of sight by shoving my camera gear in the glovebox and tucking my purse in the corner on the floor of the passenger's seat. I locked the car and put my keys in my friend's bag. We walked towards his group of friends who were near the beach.

Less than an hour later, I was completely exhausted and realized that I had another long work day ahead of me on Sunday. The two of us walked back to his bag to realize that both his bag and bike were gone. I ran to an empty parking space where my car was. Completely panic-stricken, I ran around the parking lot to make sure I hadn't parked it anywhere else and forgotten about it. It was gone.

After reporting the car as stolen to the rental car company and obtaining the license plate number for the car, I tried to report the car as stolen to the City of Minneapolis. It took hours. The Minneapolis 911 dispatcher routed me through to the impound lot—mainly because most cars that owners think are stolen aren't actually stolen, they've been towed. I knew my car couldn't have been towed: I was parked next to three other cars that remained in the lot. While getting a ride home from someone else who was at the park, I kept trying to dial through to the impound lot. From 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., I dialed that number and waited without any success. The line kept ringing and ringing. My frustration and exhaustion somehow grew with my impatience. I dialed 911 a few more times to make sure I was going through to the right number. The operator told me that there was only one person manning the phone lines and that I would have to be patient. 

I finally got through to the impound lot at around 3:30 a.m. While searching the impound lot database for the car, the man on the other line told me that Minneapolis police had recovered the vehicle. I was thrilled—a semi-quick recovery was better than no recovery at all. My high hopes told me that everything was still intact, and I hoped it was probably some kids who just took it out for a joy ride. The man told me that I wouldn't be able to pick up the car until the impound lot opened at 9 a.m., and he said that if I couldn't sleep, I could call back and ask for more details about the incident.

While I was on the phone, my friend tracked his iPhone's location and the tiny blip on the screen of my roommate's computer told us that it was in the middle of Minnehaha Park. After it remained in the same location for more than 10 minutes, the three of us drove out to the park in my roommate's car. Driving slowly but cautiously, we spotted my friend's bike. His bag and bike were thrown against the side of the tree, unharmed. Nothing was missing from the bag except for my keys. 

When we got home, I stayed awake as long as I could and called the operator at the impound lot for more information. The first time I called back, he hadn't heard anything. The second time, he told me that the first tow truck that was sent out to pick up the car broke down, and a second tow truck was on its way. Okay, I said to myself, I'll wait a little bit longer for more information. Around 5 a.m., I called back again and was told the address where the car was found. It was about a mile away from where I had parked it. Good enough, I told myself. I'd find out more information at 9 a.m. when I would go to pick up the car.

I woke up before my alarm after sleep-thinking about all of the paperwork involved (sleep-thinking is when you're not really sleeping nor are you really awake; it's a worrisome state of mind). I called work and explained the turmultuous night I had and took a personal day. I read through my rental car contract. The company was not responsible for the renters' personal belongings. In the case of missing keys, the renter was responsible for the keys and would have to pay a fee to replace them. Okay, sure. I searched every line for something about stolen keys and found nothing. I looked over the information that was written on the forms, which said I had rented a white Chevy Malibu and also had an entirely different license plate number. I realized it was impossible for me to pick up a car with incorrect paperwork. The rental car company was closed on Sunday, so they couldn't pick it up either. The impound lot refused my request to have someone check to see if my belongings were still in the car. I was forced to wait another day.

Monday morning, I called the rental car company to find out if I could pick up the car. Because it was out of my possession, the company needed to inspect the car before releasing it back to me. I stressed that I had valuable property in the car and needed to know immediately if it was still there. I was uncharacteristically optimistic. Since my friend's belongings were untouched, I assumed my belongings were safe and sound. After multiple calls to the rental car company, I found out on the third call that the rental car had been in an accident and had suffered some fire damage. I insisted that someone look in the glove box to see if my camera was still there. That's all I cared about, I said to the representative. My Canon 5D Mark II was my prized possession, and I hoped that dumb kids taking a car out for a joyride wouldn't think to look in the glove box for anything, especially a camera.

At noon, I told myself that I couldn't be polite and patient any longer. I had at least $4,000 worth of possibly stolen belongings. I called one final time and said I absolutely needed to know if the items were still in the car because I would need to file a police report for the stolen items if they were missing. The representative told me that the car had been totaled out. In reality, the fire damage they mentioned earlier was a fire that engulfed the car and incinerated anything and everything that was in it. Nothing was found in the glove box. The only thing that they found was a charred bike frame in the trunk. It wasn't mine, so I didn't care. I burst into tears once I hung up the phone. Everything had been stolen.

I filed the police report with Minneapolis Police shortly after that phone call. My friend who was with me that night helped me stutter through what happened on Sunday. The officers grilled me about the details of the night: why didn't I report it stolen at 3 a.m. instead of 1 a.m.? Did I lose my keys? What kind of people were we hanging out with that night? Have we committed crimes in the area? I didn't think any of my answers or details subjected me to this type of questioning, but the piece of information that shocked me the most was that the rental car was involved in a hit-and-run before crashing into a tree and going up in flames. The officer asked me, "Did you know that it was in a hit-and-run?" and "What if someone was killed? What if there was a body in the backseat?" I was terrified. When I asked what happened to the people in the other car involved in the hit-and-run, they said to me, "Why should you care? Care about yourself." The last thing I would want is to find out that someone was hurt or killed by the car I was driving less than 12 hours earlier.

I called my dad to tell him what happened, and instead of feeling sympathetic, he said to me, "Now you've learned your lesson."

"What lesson?!" I screamed into the phone. "Dad, everything I have is gone." He told me that I should have checked in with him before doing anything with my car. There's nothing I can do about it now, I told him.

After all that work, all I could do was wait. I had to wait to hear from the rental car company while they completed an investigation on whether or not I was liable for the complete loss of the car. I had to wait to hear from the police on whether or not they had any information about the accident. I reported fraudulent credit card activity to the police, hoping they would be able to catch someone involved with stealing my car since my card had been used at several gas stations.

The one thing I kept telling myself: everything that was lost that day is replaceable. A phone is replaceable. A camera is replaceable. My wallet is replaceable. The important thing was that no one was seriously hurt, as far as I knew. My credit card has reversed the charges, and I've replaced most of my belongings, with the exception of my camera gear. I never bought specific insurance to cover my camera gear: I thought it was an unnecessary cost. I thought that it could never happen to me, nothing would ever be stolen because I was smart about where I left my gear. Big mistake. My car insurance won't cover the loss, and the deductible is too high for my dad to think that it's worth filing the claim. I'm stuck with the responsibility of replacing about $3,000 worth of gear.

It's important for me to stress this point: I'm not asking for anything from anyone. Along with my friends, the local arts/fashion community has been very supportive in helping me create some sort of stability in my life. A month later, most things feel a little more normal.

If anyone doubts that I don't blame myself, they're wrong. I think about all the what-ifs every day. What if I brought my camera home before I went out? What if I kept my keys with me the entire night? For the most part, I've felt like I've been most criticized for not having insurance on my gear. And I understand the mistake now. I never imagined anything like this could happen to anyone, let alone me. I warn all photographers to think about that safety net and purchase insurance to cover their camera gear. You never know what'll happen: you could have a chaotic mess to sort through like I did. Protect yourself.

Editor's note: Amy Gee's friends have launched a fundraising drive to replace her camera.

Photo by Jason Bolonski (Creative Commons)

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Amy Gee's picture
Amy Gee