Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The slow grind of the wheels of justice


One night, many years ago when I was still living in Observatory in Cape Town, I woke at about 3 one morning to the unmistakable sound of my car starting up and driving away. I leapt out of bed and threw open the curtains, and sure enough, there was my little red Toyota Corolla, skedaddling down the street.

I immediately phoned the Flying Squad (back in the days when we had one) and explained that my car had been stolen literally minutes before and literally from under my nose. 'We’ll be right there,' they said, and they arrived at 10 the next day.

All that remained by then, 7 hours later, was to give them a statement and get a case number. And to try to work out how I was going to replace the third car in as many years that had been stolen from outside that house (none insured – ironically, I couldn’t afford the premiums).

About a year later I got a phonecall from a police officer in East London. Once he’d established, with very little polite preliminary chit-chat, that I was the owner of a red Toyota Corolla, registration CA-whatever, the conversation went more or less like this:

Officer: You owe us R12 per day for storage in the police compound over 350 days, and if you do not remove the car by this weekend, we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (gobsmacked): You mean my stolen car is in your police compound? How long has it been there?

Officer (utterly disinterested): 350 days. And after it’s been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (astounded): 350 days? But my car was stolen about 350 days ago. Do you mean you guys have had it all that time?

Officer (impatient): We have had it for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (looking around for hidden camera): Give me the exact date the car arrived in your compound and your phone number, and I’ll call you back.

I then went and searched out the signed police statement, checked the date, and confirmed that the car had washed up in the East London police compound exactly one day after it had been stolen from outside my house in Observatory.

I called the officer back.

Me: How long have you guys known that that car belonged to me?

Officer (bored, irritable): We have had your car for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will …

Me (tearing at my hair): Yes, yes, I know all that. What I want to know is how long you guys have had my contact information. In other words, did you know, when that car arrived in your compound, that it belonged to me?

Officer (somewhat threatening): Yes. We contacted the local authorities. We have now had the car for 350 days. After it has been here…

Me (scratching at my eyes): Yes, yes, I've got that! But why didn’t you phone me when it arrived there? If you had my contact information, why didn’t you contact me then? Why are you only contacting me now?

Officer (bored, irritable, somewhat threatening): We have had your car for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will …

Me (pulling out my toenails): I’ll call you back.

Over the next few days, I put out feelers to friends and acquaintances in the Eastern Cape. Finally, someone agreed to go to the police compound, both to have a look at the car and try to establish what had happened in the 350 days it had been sitting there. The news, when it came a few days later, was (surprise!) not good.

Apparently the car had been found, abandoned, the day after it had been stolen. It had been established immediately, because the car was properly registered, that it was a stolen vehicle and that it belonged to me; and all my contact details had been freely available to the police. The police told my acquaintance, quite unashamedly, that it had been completely intact when they found it. During the following near-year, however, it had been (unseen and unnoticed by any police officers at the compound, naturally) completely stripped. ‘All that’s left, basically, is the shell,’ my contact said. Everything, including the radio-tape and speakers, the steering wheel, all the seats, all the tyres, and even the engine and gearbox, had been scavenged. And now that it was of no use to anyone, least of all me, the police wanted nothing to do with getting rid of the wreck – or, if they did, it was to be ‘for my account’.

I called the officer and the conversation took a decided turn for the exceedingly hostile.

Me: If you’ve known for almost a year that that car belonged to me, why haven’t you called me before now??!

Officer (fingering his gun, I'd imagine): That is not my concern. Your car has been here for 350 days. After it has been here a year…


In the end, the acquaintance organised for a scrap merchant to go and fetch the shell, for which he paid me enough to more or less cover my various phonecalls to the Eastern Cape. I – obviously - declined to pay the East London police for ‘storage fees’, and, after another few antagonistic phone conversations initiated by the increasingly aggressive officer there, and several threats by me to take the case to the media, the subject was dropped.


Some years later, after I’d moved here to the small town of Riebeek Kasteel, I had another theft from my car. In 2001, the 2 front speakers, both crap quality and worth about a packet of Smarties then (and probably just the one Smartie now) were taken one Saturday night. But because theft was very unusual here in those days, I thought it worth reporting to the local constabulary, where I made a statement and got a case number. (By then I knew the drill.)

I never gave it another moment’s thought – if, after all, the police couldn’t return to its owner an entire car, with the benefit of that owner’s name, address and contact details, I clearly had no hope whatsoever of getting my speakers back.

So when a police car pulled up outside my house yesterday, and an officer got out and marched up to my front door, I knew 2 things: 1. I had been bust. And 2. I would be in for a court case, at least, and probably have to serve some time.

Neither was the case. (And I only thought it might be because I watch too much of the crime channel. Honest.) The officer was merely returning my stolen speakers. The conversation went more or less like this.

Officer (after having established who I was): You had a theft out of your vehicle in 2001? I am returning the evidence.

Me (looking – as I often do – for the hidden camera): Seriously? You’re returning speakers that were stolen from me ELEVEN YEARS AGO?

Officer (showing no amusement – or, really, any other emotion – whatsoever): Yes. Please sign here. And here.

Me (in – as you can imagine – near-hysterics): No, really. Come on. Eleven years? Where have they been all that time? Who stole them? Was there a court case?

Officer (pushing clipboard and speakers at me): I cannot comment. I am only returning the evidence. Please sign here. And here.

Me (signing and taking speakers): Well, golly. Who woulda thought?! Amazing. 2001, hey? Eleven years. Hahaha. Not sure what I’m going to do with these but…

Officer (turning on his heel with pointed lack of interest): Thank you and goodbye.

In the future

My very valued (and not only because it was expensive) digital camera was stolen out of my house in December. I fully expect it to be returned, in some astounding way and by some utterly unexpected means (its technology drastically out of date, of course), at some surprising time in the future. Watch this space.

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