MPD Hit and Run

Couple has car stolen, call cops, get fined

Kirstie Zahansky may lose her license for a year--because somebody stole her vehicle.

On August 7, the "National Night Out" against crime, Kirstie and Scott Zahansky's red Chevy S-10 pickup was parked beside their garage in the Longfellow neighborhood. Scott recalls seeing it at about 11:00 p.m., just before heading to bed.

Earlier that evening he had taken the truck for a spin around the block. The '86 Chevy had been sitting idle since the end of May, when Scott purchased a Ford Explorer, but he was thinking about switching back to the older vehicle. It had sentimental value: The Chevy had belonged to his wife's brother until his death eight years ago. And despite an estimated 200,000 miles (the odometer had long been broken), it was still a reliable ride. Sometime later that night, though, a thief put the issue to rest.

When Scott looked out the kitchen window the next morning, just after 9:00 a.m., the truck was gone. He immediately called 911. It was too late. According to a police report, an officer discovered the vehicle at 4:30 a.m. at the Dowling Environmental Learning Center, roughly a mile from the Zahanskys' house. It had crashed through the school's gate and into a fence and then been abandoned. Scott Zahansky was directed to the city impound lot to recover the truck.

There wasn't much of the Chevy left to claim. The pickup's front grill and the headlights were smashed, and the driver's-side fender had a large gash. The interior of the truck was worse: the middle console had been destroyed, the glove-box door ripped off, and the steering column was removed so the truck could be started without a key. Not surprisingly, the stereo had been stolen as well (although the thief did leave behind compact discs by the Cowboy Junkies and the Pretenders).

The Zahanskys did a quick cost-benefit analysis and determined that the truck wasn't worth repairing. They decided to donate the car to the city rather than pay the $125 it would cost to get it out of the impound lot.

The situation got even worse when the Zahanskys met with the Minneapolis police five days after the truck was stolen. They assumed they would be asked for information that would aid in the investigation, but Sgt. Greg Freeman had something else in mind. He gave Kirstie a ticket for driving without insurance--a misdemeanor that could result in revocation of her license for a year and a fine of at least $200. Since nobody had been driving the truck, Kirstie, the official owner of the vehicle, had canceled the insurance in July. "I don't like to wear the victim sticker, but I thought, 'Wait a minute. You're charging me with a criminal misdemeanor and my truck is gone?'" Kirstie recalls thinking.

When she protested, Sergeant Freeman told her that she was lucky; he could have thrown her in jail. What's more, she was informed that she would be liable for any property damage that resulted from the accident. At one point, Scott Zahansky says, he asked Freeman, "'So if someone had been killed with the truck, you would have arrested my wife for murder?' The sergeant paused for second and said, 'Yep, that's right.'"

The Zahanskys say there was no discussion of apprehending whoever stole the truck. Freeman said that two hooded men had been observed fleeing the car, but he displayed no interest in pursuing them. "Why aren't they investigating my vehicle theft?" Kirstie asks. "That totally got lost in the shuffle.

Lt. Gregory Reinhardt, commander of the Minneapolis Police Department's traffic unit, who was present during the Zahanskys' meeting with Freeman, defends his colleague's actions. "Many people have vehicles that they do not insure, that they store around private property, or that they store on the street, because they're trying to save money, and that's understandable," he says. "However, state law is very clear--people must have insurance on their vehicles."

Reinhardt further notes that the Minneapolis Police Department deals with about 4,700 hit-and-run accidents a year. Twenty percent of the time, he estimates, one of the vehicles involved is later reported as stolen. But when the investigation is over, according to Reinhardt, that alibi only proves to be true about two percent of the time. "The legitimate [claims] we have are very low," he maintains. "The reason people run from accidents is that they are either drunk or they don't have insurance or they have some problem with their driver's license or registration." The police often get calls from citizens reporting a stolen vehicle, he says, and, lo and behold, the same car was found wrapped around a tree at 4:00 earlier that same morning. "You don't have to be Columbo to figure out what happened there."

Because of this high rate of fraudulent claims, and because there are just two officers in the hit-and-run unit, the police simply don't investigate who originally stole the car. "We don't have the time to do it," Reinhardt allows.

Reinhardt even questions the veracity of Kirstie Zahansky's story. "Believe it or not, people lie to the police," he says. "Maybe they lie to reporters, too. Maybe she was driving the car."

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