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Carjacked by Fort Bragg (Feb. 12, 2003)

Tim Farmer has been in business for 20 years, half those years at 501 North Main, Fort Bragg, where he creates, sells and repairs complicated automobile electrical systems. His business is called Cutting Edge Electronics. Mr. Farmer's work is highly specialized, his services much in demand. 

Small businesses are also much in demand in Fort Bragg as they are everywhere in perennially under-employed, private-sector Mendocino County. Mr. Farmer, however, wonders if local government's commitment to free enterprise is more rhetorical than actual. 

“I had a customer’s car here two weeks ago,” Mr. Farmer begins, “a 7-Series BMW, which was waiting for some parts so I could finish fixing its electrical system. It was parked on private property behind my shop when the Fort Bragg Police Department came by and cited it as an abandoned vehicle.”

If the BMW wasn't moved within 72 hours it would be impounded and removed, the citation promised. And the law makes it easy because the law says abandoned vehicles can be “abated” if they are valued under $300. The BMW, Mr. Farmer insists, “was obviously worth more than $300 and just as obviously it was being worked on, and it was parked on the premises of a licensed business — my business.”

“The owners were fixing this car up,” Mr. Farmer explains, straining not to sound too apoplectic. “It wasn’t their every day car. It didn’t have a registration on it because it was still a work in progress. They'd already done some motor work on it. It was over here to get its electronic system working again —power seats, windows, cruise control, door locks, the works. To the owners the car may be worth $5,000 or more. Its blue book value is $2300. It's certainly worth more than $300. It's a 7-series BMW. Loaded. Had everything. Fixed up it's a heckuva nice car. The windows were all there, the leather seats were all there. Everything was there; it was a complete car! My customer’s car! Yes, it needed a paint job, but it didn’t have a bit of rust or scratch one on it. The tires were full of air. I was working on it. That’s what I do here, with a business license to do it here. And now I’m gonna have to foot the bill for what's left of the car on top of what the City of Fort Bragg and the county abatement department put on me? No way!”

Mr. Farmer was working out of town during the crucial 72 hours the classic BMW was ticketed, then hauled off to Willits. But, as he indignantly points out, his secretary was in the office every day during work hours. 

The secretary's duties do not include perimeter checks, and she too was unaware that the car had been tagged and then confiscated. The police hadn't come to the office to ask her about the Beemer's status; they'd simply tagged it as one more eyesore in the touristy heart of town and moved on to the next impound.

The registered owner of the vehicle doesn’t live in Fort Bragg. She was notified by mail that the work-in-progress Beemer was about to become public property. As of January 21st, she was informed, the restoration of the luxury vehicle would be pancaked and sold as scrap metal out of Willits. On January 27th, a Ms. Rachelle Russell called Mendocino County's vehicle abaters to speak of both the Beemer and her boy friend in the past tense. “The care really belonged to him,” Miss Russell said. “Not me.” 

Ms. Russell, it seems, had already scrapped both of them.

The impound of the disputed Beemer, its battered self lamented and grieved over solely by Mr. Farmer, was a joint project of Fort Bragg and Mendocino County's vehicle abatement department.

“The City of Fort Bragg,” Mr. Farmer, incredulous that it could and did happen here, says,  “told the county abatement department that the vehicle was parked on the corner. Which it wasn’t. It was parked on private property and I have witnesses. The county abatement department sent over Willits Tow with a flatbed truck. They parked one car toward the front part of the flatbed, the BMW behind that one, and pulled a full-sized Ford van up on top of the BMW with a winch and strapped it down, effectively crushing the BMW, and hauled it back to Willits!”

Willits Tow called Mr. Farmer while he was still trying to figure out where the vehicle had disappeared to to remind the fuming electrical engineer that he owed them impound fees; a Ms. Hunt of the county's Planning and Building Department and one of the county's two-person vehicle abatement office, then informed Mr. Farmer that he would also have to reimburse the county tow fees. 

“I’m like, what?” Mr. Farmer recalls. “Excuse me, but who do I say Up Yours! to in this situation? The police chief says to me, Oh, by the way we have the right to tag that vehicle and tow it. I said, Excuse me, but on private property? I’m a licensed business. I pay my taxes. I pay for my business license and you have the right to tow off my customer’s car? Oh yeah, he says, we have the right.” 

Fort Bragg's city manager, Connie Jackson, tersely confirms Fort Bragg's right to tow, whether from public or private property.

“The vehicle was on private property, but vehicles can be towed from private property.” 

The city manager added a faint disclaimer. 

“And the car was not destroyed, but it did sustain some damage.”

It would seem so, but it might seem to neutral observers that the authority to take action hardly amounts to a mandate to do it, especially to a tax paying small business guy. 

A Ford van was winched up and set down on top of the Beemer, crushing its trunk, its rear window, its roof.

The slo-mo, government-sponsored carjack of the vintage Beemer was a done deal.

“Who the hell do these people think they are?,” Mr. Farmer asks. “They can come onto my property and take my customer’s vehicle?”

Evidently. And evidently Mr. Farmer was unaware of his customer's altered romantic status, which in turn had altered the vehicle's status.

It is rumored that a certain hyper-vigilant, well-connected Fort Bragg bed and breakfast proprietor prefers only non-industrial enterprises like his in the neighborhood. Busybody's complaints range from the odor of brewing beer wafting out of the nearby brewery to vehicles that BB views as illegally parked all the way to the hallowed local music of the ancient Skunk Train and its steam whistle. 

“This neighbor,” Mr. Farmer says, diplomatically not identifying BB even by gender, “wants the city to consider my business an eyesore. But I paid out of my pocket to paint this building, I pick up the garbage around here, I try to keep the place clean and neat. And so far, this is all trickle down stuff. I haven’t received a letter notifying me of anything. Everything I've learned about what happened I've learned by calling them. I work a lot, I don’t have time to play games, but they've tagged my secretary’s car, which she drives here daily; they've  tagged my service man; they’ve tagged my service truck. They’ve tagged customer's vehicles, and now they've stolen a customer's vehicle! I think I'm being totally harassed.”

Jim McCleary oversees vehicle impounds for the county. Most, he says, are uncontested. McCleary said that the lost BMW Mr. Farmer was irate over had been  declared impound material by the Fort Bragg Police Department. 

“They'd completed what we call a 180,” McCleary explainined, “which is a fax notification document from the police that advises us that a vehicle has been cited and qualifies for our abandoned vehicle program and that they’d like us to tow it. We then have the vehicle towed. The police always initiate the process.” McCleary added that vehicles that appeared to be worth more than $300 or otherwise didn't seem to qualify for the scrap heap, would be personally evaluated by his office's field abater before or immediately after they were towed. A tow truck driver ordinarily makes that call on the spot. The disputed BMW hauled from Mr. Farmer's business on North Main, however, was simply confiscated as per order of the Fort Bragg Police Department. The Beemer has since undergone a thorough eyeballing by the county's ace $300 appraiser, Ms. Hunt.

“She went to Willits Automotive and did indeed look at the car,” McCleary said of his assistant, Ms. Hunt. “She took a whole bunch of pictures, which I have in front of me.”

McCleary denied that the car had been destroyed. He conceded, however, “that unfortunately the tow operator put it on a flatbed and put another vehicle on top of it. It's crunched in the top a bit and the back window is broken out. There's some damage to it.”

The scourge of Mendocino County's eyesore vehicles went on to speculate that the tow truck driver may have been new to the job and had prematurely winched the Beemer onto his flatbed unaware that every impounded wreck no matter how derelict, how rusted, how hopelessly irreparable, must arrive in Willits in the exact condition of decrepitude in which it departed Fort Bragg. Instead, the Beemer was tossed up on the truck and a vile old hippie van plunked down on top of it. 

“We give the owner 15 days to reclaim the vehicle,” McClearly explained, accounting for the damage to the Beemer as he went. “By law, the vehicle is required to be in the same condition as it was on the street. It can’t be damaged in any way.” 

The Beemer's registered owner, Ms. Russell of Los Angeles, several worlds  from Fort Bragg and whole galaxies from Willits, is shown by Department of Motor Vehicles records to have purchased the vehicle last fall for — ta da! — the magic cutoff price of $300! 

Ms. Russell called the county's abatement office soon after her doomed Beemer had taken its last ride; the county's abatement guy, Jim McCleary, made her an offer she immediately refused.

“On January 27, Miss Russell called us,” McCleary remembers, “and was told that she could reclaim the vehicle, that it had not been destroyed, but that she would have to pay her back registration fees and pay for towing and storage. She was also advised the vehicle was damaged and that she would have to negotiate the cost of repairs with the tow operator. She told us she had no interest in the car; that it belonged to her ex-boyfriend and that she didn't have a bill of sale.”

Ms. Russell all but screamed, “Crush it! Crush the man who put it in my name, too, for all I care.” 

“Mr. Farmer,” McCleary explained, “would not be able to take possession of the car unless he could prove that he was the owner of the vehicle; Rachelle Russell would have to sell it to Mr. Farmer and there would have to be a bill of sale recorded by DMV; then he could claim it.” 

McCleary added that when there's a dispute about the value of an impounded vehicle that his first stop is DMV records to discover the car's legal owner and how much that person paid for it. He said most of the impounded vehicles show a value of $300 or less. 

“There are occasions when we have vehicles that show a greater value than $300 but the date of sale on these vehicles is typically two or three years prior to their being towed and they're no longer worth that much,” McCleary says before returning to the specific case of Mr. Farmer and the impounded Fort Bragg Beemer. 

“No record of services rendered by Mr. Farmer has been produced by him despite repeated requests from the Fort Bragg Police Department. He hasn’t produced any kind of document that would show he did anything to the car. Just looking at the vehicle there's nothing visible that indicates he did any work on it. The Fort Bragg Police Department said that it had been parked out there for quite some time which, of course, is a violation of Mendocino County Code and Fort Bragg's parking regulations.” 

As of last Wednesday, the forlorn Beemer was more or less in one piece, depending on who defines 'one piece' as applied to this once lush vehicle. The Fort Bragg Police Department has advised Mr. Farmer to file a mechanic’s lien against the title of the vehicle for the work he's done on it, which would make the car his since his investment of his labor is likely to be greater than the Beemer's official value of $300.

Fort Bragg City councilman Dan Gjerde said last week that he didn't know anything about the impounded BMW but agreed that vehicles located on private property shouldn't be hauled off as if they'd simply been left on the street.

“In the past,” the young councilman recalled, “the city only towed vehicles that had been abandoned on public streets or property; then they were hauled to a 2-acre lot a couple of miles up Highway 20 where the fire department stores stuff until they were verified as abandoned and towed off by the county.”

Gjerde suggested that Mr. Farmer might want to take his case to the Fort Bragg City Council's public safety committee consisting of Jere Melo and Lindy Peters, which, as it happens, meets this Wednesday with representatives of the police, fire department and public works at 2pm at the Fort Bragg Police Department. 

“It does sound like there should be a different impound procedure for vehicles parked on private property,” Gjerde said. 

Mr. Farmer says his next stop is probably a lawyer's office.

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