September... The ninth month of the year. Usually considered the first month of autumn for the U.S. September is a month that often brings difficult situations and life lessons my way. Lessons of loss, death, fear, and survival. These are a few of the big ones over the years: 9/11 - National tragedy, death of my sister three days shy of her 28th birthday, death of my first frog on the anniversary of my sister's death, and the month I was told one of my dearly loved relatives has a month to live due to illness.
This year brought a special challenge.
Steve and I have driven an amazing little Jetta for over seven years. It's been a wonderful car, but it's beginning to show its age. It's in desperate need of a new clutch, but we just didn't have the finances or skill to replace it cheaply. So, we began looking for a used car in our price range. It took a lot of prayer and a leap of faith to feel at peace with the process. We had just paid off all non-school debt and were super happy about it. The prospect of jumping headlong into another large loan was discouraging.
We found a little car we liked a lot that was in our price range. A cute little Ford Focus:
The first thing we did after taking the car home was make a trip to the beach. It was so gorgeous. It was the first time we had been able to do that all summer. We got to visit the Oregon Coast Aquarium (thanks to Groupon). If you ever get the chance to visit, it's one of the most amazing attractions on the West Coast. I always love watching the otters and sea lions.
We stopped by Beverly Beach State Park while we were out there. Sweet little campground with yurts and tepees tucked away from the windy beach, but a very short stroll from the waves.
We also got the chance to drive the back roads out to Dallas, Oregon to visit some friends. On the way we saw some pretty cool dirt devils!
Part of me almost wishes I had photos for the rest of the story because I don't think you'll believe me. But trust me. It's all true.
We had the for about a week. Everything was working great. It was Thursday, September 8th. I was driving to the humane society during rush hour around 2:50pm to volunteer, like I do every week. Traffic was moving really slow. Bumper-to-bumper slow. For some stupid reason I had taken Mission Street instead of taking State St to Airport Rd, which is about 10 minutes faster.
I saw a police officer in a squad car sitting at the stoplight in the intersection I had just passed through. The traffic was slow and I had stopped over the crosswalk on the far side. I was a little nervous he might be a picky cop and cite me for something if the light turned red. I made it through on green and two cars came behind me. He flipped his lights on and pulled into the main stream of traffic, and then flipped the lights off again. I was watching in my mirrors because it always makes me nervous having a cop right behind me. I thought it was weird that he only turned his lights on for a second. Then the paranoia set in. Was he going to pull me over for something stupid?
The squad car kept moving to the right shoulder, I supposed to see ahead of traffic. I thought that was strange. The gas light came on. The car being new to me, I wondered how far I could go on a low tank. Should I stop to put gas in and not have to worry about having a cop behind me? I decided not to. I went through another big intersection where another lane added onto the right, creating a five lane road. I moved over to that far-right lane because I needed to turn right in a few blocks to get to the humane society.
The next thing I knew, the cop turned his lights and sirens back on. We all started to pull over to the side of the road. The cop violently pulled right in front of my car and pinned it in so I had nowhere to go. Two more squad cars pulled up beside my car and behind it, boxing the car in, isolating it from all the other traffic.
The doors on all the cop cars flew open. About six cops scrambled out with their guns pointed directly at my head. They were all at least 20 feet away. Before any of that happened, I had already turned the car off and rolled the window down, ready to talk to the officer who came to my window. Clearly, no one was going to approach my window.
I was freaking out a little. Ok... A lot. An officer from behind my car began to yell.
"DRIVER! GET YOUR HANDS UP!"
My hands flew up. I could see the officers in my rear view mirror and my side mirrors. My hands started shaking. Honestly, I started to think, "What is going on?!? Maybe I should shake more... Maybe I should start crying??" I was so shocked and panicked that I hadn't even had time to naturally respond to the events exploding around me.
"DRIVER! TURN THE VEHICLE OFF!"
I had started crying by then. My first thought was, "If I move too quickly, they might shoot me." Every time I had to move my hands, I freaked out a little more.
"DRIVER! GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE! SLOWLY!"
Reaching down to undo my seatbelt was the scariest part, up to that point. I reached my right arm over to pull the door handle, remembering how my dad had always instructed me to keep my hands on the steering wheel and in sight when stopped by a cop. Feeling all the strength drained out of my legs, I got out of the car and kept my hands up in the air. I imagined all of the people's faces looking at me and imagining what I had done. An awful, dirty feeling. I couldn't think of anything I had done to deserve such force. I wondered if I had hit someone. Mentally I knew I hadn't seen anyone or heard or felt any thumps. I wasn't speeding. We were only going 20 mph. I didn't run any lights. I felt like throwing up, but I was too scared to move.
"DRIVER! FACE FORWARD AND WALK BACKWARD TOWARD MY VOICE! SLOWLY!"
Though there were cars with passengers all around me, I still don't remember a single face or a single car. All I remember is the officer in uniform directly behind me and how fake the gun looked - like plastic. I knew it wasn't. Logic. I backed up until I reached the cops who were standing behind my car.
"MOVE TO THE RIGHT".
I was really shaking at that point. I asked the officer "Which way is right?!?" I laugh really hard at that now. I'm pretty awful with left and right on a regular basis. I couldn't think at all. They then directed me to take a few steps over to the squad car and put my hands on the roof - like you see on TV. Insane.
A woman officer patted me down. Arms first. Down my sides. The inside bands of my "unmentionables". Down my legs. Shook out my pant legs. Felt around my ankles. I was sobbing by then and kept asking "What's going in?!?!?!?"
"Ma'am, you're driving a stolen vehicle.", one of the male officers informed me. "Did you know it's stolen?"
Of course not! The question kept echoing in my mind, "How could this happen? We bought it!"
The clank of metal. They pulled my hands behind my back. Cold, metal handcuffs were tightened around my wrists. They cut into my skin. It was uncomfortable, but mostly unnerving. I was then led to a squad car where they opened the door. I just started at it for a few seconds thinking this was absolutely ridiculous.
"Take a seat, ma'am." said the woman officer who had patted me down.
I looked at the hard plastic bench and the plexiglass window, barely a foot away from the bench. Concerned about not being able to use my hands to steady myself, I asked the woman, "How do I get in?" She replied not so brightly, "Put one foot in first." Duh. "Watch your head." Thank you so much for your assistance...
"I can't sit back. How do I sit in here?" I was doing my best to do as I was told.
"If you scoot over a little farther, there's a cut-out in the bench."
A lot of good that did. I was really wishing I had practiced that stupid Jillian Michaels' cool-down stretch more.
People do irrational things when they're traumatized. Through my tears I asked the woman, "Could someone call the humane society to tell them I won't be there today?" The woman looked surprised and a little lost for words. She was probably thinking, "Girl! You're in a heap of trouble, you're bawling your eyes out, and you want me to call the humane society?"
What can I say? I'm responsible.
I only allowed myself to look at the cars to the left once. An older couple with gray hair was driving past slowly. I don't think I'll ever forget the horrified, concerned look on the old woman's face. Perfectly coifed silver hair and pure horror. Quite the reflection. I tried to drop my head, but I had for practicality's sake pulled my hair into a pony tail that afternoon. My hands were bound. It was so humiliating. I kept praying and hoping nobody I knew would drive past.
Terror. Overwhelming grief. Anger. Shock. Denial. Bewilderment. Complete loneliness. Betrayal. Utter helplessness. It all crashed against the shores of my heart like the pounding of a tidal wave.
One large cop plopped into the driver's seat. The woman took the passenger seat. Bars on my window. I was in total shock. Rarely are there pedestrians on that street. I'm sure two hordes walked past, trying to see who committed an awful crime. I was sobbing.
Digging for any semblance of sense in this chaos, "How can this be happening? I was on my way to volunteer for homeless pets. I teach women's bible study. I go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. I'm a wife who works at home. How can I be any sort of threat? Why did they put me in here??"
The big guy began with the questions.
"Ma'am, what's your name?"
"Date of birth?"
"What's your current address?"
"Have you ever been arrested?"
"Now, can you see this report on my screen? Can you see the car is reported as stolen?"
They read me my Miranda rights and proceeded to question me. All I could think about was other people I've known who have had false charges brought against them, and how much misery they had to endure. I didn't want to talk, but reasoned if I didn't talk, they would take me to a holding facility at the jail. The back of a squad car was feeling traumatic enough. I decided I would tell the truth. I had done nothing wrong.
I couldn't stop crying and I was terrified. I kept praying, "Abba! Help me!" All I wanted at that moment was to be out of that car and to have Steve with me. I told them we had proof of purchase and DMV papers in the car. I was pretty sure the title or registration was in there.
"Ma'am, I have here a form for permission to search the vehicle. I need your consent. Is it ok if we look in the car?"
Thoughts flew through my head. "What if they find something I have no idea about and it can be pinned on me for a crime? It's a pretty far leap, but so was getting attacked by the police with guns and put in the back of this car with these handcuffs." I gave in.
After an eternity, a cop walked up to the driver's window.
"I believe everything she's saying. She's telling the truth."
They had found the proof of purchase papers in an envelope stamped by the car dealership in the glove box.
All the cops got out of the car.
"My wrists are really hurting..." I said out the window as the woman walked by. She looked at my with pity in her eyes. Useless pity. It made me mad.
"We'll get them off of you in just a minute." She abandoned me there in the back of the car. I started sobbing again. Lyrics drifted like smoke into my mind, "When peace like a river attendeth my soul..." I couldn't remember the rest of it, but I knew it fit the situation, whatever the next lyrics were.
After what seemed like an eternity, they opened the door and took the cuffs off. My wrists were a really dark red from the cuffs cutting into them. I probably would have been in a rage, but I was so relieved to be out of that car and those cuffs. I wondered how badly they would bruise. "Am I going to have an arrest record?" I think I asked that six or seven times.
It's terrible the way people look at you when you're handcuffed or in a cop car. What happened to "innocent until proven guilty in a court of law"? I realized then and there that I am one hundred percent guilty of putting myself in the Judge's chair. I am so wrong. I am a sinner. Only God can judge the heart of man. We are to judge their actions according to the law, but the law is incredibly inadequate. I pray even more fervently, "Jesus, come soon!" I thought about how I didn't really do anything "wrong", and that's exactly what people say to God when they are told they need forgiveness. I went through the same reasoning they go through. "I'm a good person." I needed God to intercede on my behalf in that moment in the back of that squad car just like I needed him to lay his righteousness over my sinful heart when I was in bondage to sin and my fleshly desires. What an incredible yet ridiculous object lesson. I will never pray for patience again was my declaration that day. I caught myself praying for it the next day. He knows what I need, and how much I can handle. ;)
The cops explained to me that the car we purchased had been reported stolen an entire month before on August 1st in Astoria, Oregon.
"Somebody has some explaining to do." was their summary of the afternoon's events.
They returned my phone and everything else they took off of me in the initial search, as well as my purse, which they had also gone through.
They had emptied the car of all of our belongings. One of the officers - all their faces blended together by then - told me they had put our things in a "steel sack". I asked what that was. He pointed to a silver trash bag on the sidewalk. It shouldn't have been a big deal, but it felt like a knife through my heart. They put everything I found valuable in a trash bag and had treated me like trash as well and kicked us both to the curb. I was crushed. Steve's toolbox sat beside the steel sack. I felt homeless.
"Did you want to call your husband, ma'am?" The woman asked.
No... I really didn't. I had just experienced one of the worst moments of my life. My instinct was to insulate and protect Steve from every possible hint of it. I felt miserable. I was physically drained from the panic and crying. I was in pain from the handcuffs. I was angry at the police, but strangely grateful to them for giving me back my freedom. I had stopped crying and I could hear my voice was devoid of emotion.
"Hello?" Steve answered his phone.
"Hey. So they sold us a stolen car."
"What?!? Are you kidding me? How do you know??"
"I'm sitting here with about six cops and three squad cars. I need you to come get me."
I felt like the most miserable wretch in the world. I was the one who brought such horrible panic and terror to my husband's heart. I would rather that it was me than to have a cop call him. At least he would know I was alive and mostly ok by hearing my voice. I'm afraid my voice wasn't very assuring though.
He got to the scene and was pretty furious, but he kept his cool. I've never seen his face so tense, and I've seen him pretty mad. I was so afraid he would do or say something and the cops would do something awful - again. I started to feel as though they could do whatever they wanted because they had badges and guns. I just wanted to get home and lock the door. My trust in the police and the judicial & legislative systems was shattered.
This is the part of the story where I get tired of telling it so I just speed through the rest. =)
After the cops left us that day, they weren't helpful at all. They were rude and insensitive. They apologized for the circumstances and expressed sympathy for the trauma I suffered, but never once apologized for the way they treated me.
We ended up doing the investigating ourselves. Steve and his dad went to the car lot to talk to the salesman. He said they had all the legal papers. They had bought it at an auction. A detective finally got back to us five days later, and WE filled HIM in on the case.
According to them, a married couple in California owned the car. At some point, the husband took out a car title loan (where the lender takes your car title as collateral for the money they loan you). The couple divorced and the wife took the car to Oregon. Instead of getting the title back from her husband, she filed a "Lost Title" with the Oregon DMV and put her maiden name on it. The husband didn't pay off the loan and told the company "If you can find the car, you can have it." They located it in northern Oregon and repossessed it.
When the ex-wife came out to her car in the morning, it was gone. She reported it to the Astoria police as stolen. So, the trick here is that there are now two titles to this vehicle. One title says the car is legally repossessed. The other title says the car is stolen. Someone in the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or two police departments (Astoria & Salem) dropped the ball and didn't do their job.
The cops told us (paraphrasing) "Nobody broke any laws. Too bad. That's life. At least nobody got hurt."
Here's how we got the car:
The loan company that repossessed the vehicle sold it to an auction place. They auctioned the car with its original title to the car lot where we bought it. I honestly think some sort of charges should be brought against the wife. She should have gotten the title from her husband, either on her own or through an attorney. It's just irresponsible and stupid. They should have managed their finances better so they didn't need a car title loan. They should have managed their marriage better so they didn't get a divorce. Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda. I'm still working on the forgiveness part of things.
The owner and the salesman at the car lot felt absolutely awful. They decided to help us out by letting us choose a different car for the same price. We picked a fully-loaded 2002 Honda Accord with leather seats. The salesman didn't know he wasn't authorized to offer us that vehicle. The owner said it was ok, but he had paid $150 more at auction for it and wanted to at least get back what he spent. For $150 more, we got a car that was worth $2,000 more than the original car that the cops stole from us with their guns. :P
God is good, and he allows trials like this to make us rise stronger and to give us a greater testimony of his faithfulness.
Life is slowly getting back to normal.
I see cops everywhere I go now. Feels like they're stalking me. I also get a little nervous driving the new car, especially by myself. I keep thinking, "The next time a cop pulls me over, he better have a stretcher because I'll probably pass out before he even gets to my window."
The cops told me I was "detained", not arrested. That's a pack of lies, but I'll take the lies if it keeps me from having to fight an arrest record! One of the officers also said "As soon as I saw you, I knew you weren't a car thief!" There were other things said by officers that were inappropriate and infuriating, but I'm just going to keep working on that forgiveness part.
In the end...
Mercy is greater than justice.
God's got my back and He loves me like crazy.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Then the Lord giveth even better. ;)