Metro-East Living

Dispute over who owns the Wild Cherry van sparks fierce debate in ‘vanning community’

Americans who collect, restore and travel in classic vans are a tight-knit group, chatting on social media, meeting at car shows and referring to themselves as members of the “vanning community.”

But a controversy over the Wild Cherry — a red Chevy van that appeared in the 1979 movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” — has caused a heated debate between supporters of an Illinois man who rescued and restored it and people siding with a California woman who says he stole it from her mountain property in November.

Hundreds of comments have been posted on a public Facebook group page called “Vanner Inc.” Some use strong language to describe the man, Chris Carter, of Collinsville, and the woman, Laura Godin, of Burbank, California. Milder comments range from “This guy is one of my new heroes” to “How would you like someone coming on your property and taking what they want?” One person wrote, “The restore of this van is epic.” Another replied, “So was the theft!”

On Thursday, “Vanner Inc.” administrator Bill Hitz removed one thread with more than 200 comments and asked followers to stop posting about the Wild Cherry because the discussion had become a “distraction.”

“Vanning is supposed to be a brotherhood, not a word war,” said follower Alan Barsht in a phone interview from his home in Orlando, Florida. “As long as I’ve been vanning, I’ve never seen anybody say the hateful stuff that people have been saying about Chris Carter.”

Barsht, 60, is a construction worker who’s been driving vans for 44 years. He followed the Wild Cherry restoration process from beginning to end on the van’s Facebook page, which also was taken down Thursday. Carter couldn’t be reached for comment.

Alan with van.jpg
Alan Barsht poses with a 1978 Dodge van he restored after the former owner left it parked in a field for 26 years. More recently, he followed the Wild Cherry van restoration from beginning to end. Provided

Barsht described Carter, 39, as a hard-working, determined and passionate man who saved a classic vehicle that was rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire. It hadn’t been registered since the early 1990s. Carter has said neighbors in the mountainous desert near Lancaster, California — where he located the van after seeing a Facebook photo and doing a year of detective work — called it “abandoned,” unlocked a gate and allowed him to drive up a dirt road, load the vehicle on a trailer and haul it away.

“Why was the title left in it, and and why was it left to rot on that mountain for so many years?” Barsht asked, questioning Godin’s claim that she and her husband, Steven, kept the title in the van and dreamed of restoring it someday. “And then she doesn’t come forward until the van is done? I think that’s a bunch of hogwash.”

Barsht feels a kinship to Carter. Barsht drives a yellow 1978 Dodge van that he salvaged from a Florida field, where it had been parked for 26 years. However, Barsht said he got permission from the owner to take it in 2006.

Case brings negative publicity

Another person keeping an eye on the Wild Cherry discussion is Ed Beard Jr., a nationally known fantasy artist whose dragons, wizards, fairies and other mythological creatures have appeared on calendars, books, magazines, posters, T-shirts, mugs, games, puzzles and other collectibles.

Beard also paints the images on vans, and he co-produces two car shows, including Autorama in Detroit and SEMA in Las Vegas. He’s concerned that the Wild Cherry controversy is casting a negative light on the industry.

“Every time you have the distraction of a drama or a fiasco such as this, that’s what everyone is talking about,” said Beard, 60, of Montgomery, Pennsylvania.

Producers of U.S. car shows — where the Wild Cherry was expected to be displayed in the coming months — are anxiously awaiting results of an investigation, Beard said. Godin, 54, filed a stolen-vehicle report on the van June 25 at the Lancaster station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Her 20-acre parcel is in a remote area known as “Sawmill Mountain.” The locked gate and dirt road serves multiple properties.

Car shows can’t be associated with stolen vehicles, Beard said. “We’re all waiting to find out what the police department decides on this. That is the crucial thing. Once we find that out, we can move forward.”

GoFundMe page.jpg
Wild Cherry supporters donated $5,908 to a GoFundMe campaign to help with restoration costs, but some requested refunds later, reducing the amount to $5,753.

Carter had turned off some in the vanning community before Godin even filed her police report, Beard said. One issue was that he raised $5,900 through a GoFundMe page to help with restoration costs, and critics felt it was more of a business enterprise than a charitable project.

Administrators of the GoFundMe website did not respond to an online media inquiry to determine if any complaints had been filed against the Wild Cherry fundraiser.

“I’m undecided (about the controversy) at this point,” said Daryl Matis, 41, of Wakeman, Ohio, a truck driver who helped Carter early in his restoration by donating wheels, tires and other parts valued at about $2,000. “It’s very complicated.”

Matis, who’s been vanning for 40 years and now drives a gold 1998 Ford Econoline conversion van, said Thursday that he didn’t see much appreciation from Carter in July, when the restored Wild Cherry was debuted at the 46th Van Nationals in Rensselaer, Indiana.

On the other hand, Matis wonders about Laura Godin’s motives.

“It sounds like maybe that woman is trying to pull a fast one since (the van) is complete and looking good,” he said. “But I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

It’s unknown how much other Godin family members are involved in the Wild Cherry case. Carter wrote on Instagram this summer that he had discovered paperwork in the van’s “doghouse” — a vinyl cover over the engine hump — that led him to contact Laura’s son, Steven Jr., to get more information. “Both him and his wife were ecstatic” about the restoration, the post stated. Carter reiterated this point in a Sept. 15 interview.

Discussion won’t be silenced

After “Vanner Inc.” and other vanning Facebook pages started limiting discussion on the Wild Cherry, people who wanted to keep talking about it created their own public group called “Wild Cherry Van.” Sentiment seems to side mostly with Godin, as the page’s original cover image was a 1981 photo of her posing in front of the van at Yosemite National Park in California. She has said her husband bought it the year before.

Laura with van
Laura Godin poses in front of the Wild Cherry van during a trip to Yosemite National Park in 1981. Her husband, Steven, bought the van from a neighbor the year before. Provided Provided

Some followers of the new page have asked how Carter could register the Wild Cherry with no title or bill of sale. One posted a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles document with the VIN number CGY155U143803. State records show that the VIN belongs to a 1976 Chevrolet registered in Florida in December. Chris Carter’s grandmother, Vicki Carter, lives in Fort Myers, she said Sept. 15 when preparing to travel cross-country with a Wild Cherry Van Run.

The VIN also corresponds with an Illinois Secretary of State record for a 1975 Chevrolet registered in August to a Vicki Carter with a Collinsville address, according to agency spokesman Dave Druker. The Wild Cherry now has an Illinois vanity license plate with “VANUYS” on it.

Godin’s stolen-vehicle report identifies the Wild Cherry as a 1975 model.

“I’m 90 percent sure it’s a ‘75,” said Nick Massalas, 59, a businessman in San Diego, California, who owned the van from 1977 to 1980 and drove it in the movie. He said Friday that he’s looking for confirmation on the year, as that information was requested by a police detective who called him Wednesday.

Chris Carter used a 1976 Chevy as a “donor van” because parts of the Wild Cherry were damaged beyond repair, he said in a February interview.

The nonprofit Museum of Vanning in Hudson, Florida, isn’t taking a position on the van dispute, according to board Chairman Larry Gibson, who emailed the following statement:

“The Museum of Vanning is an historical museum. As such, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on the potential controversy regarding the provenance of the Wild Cherry Van. We are interested in the subject van and it’s restoration project only from the viewpoint of vanning history. Our only comment is that we trust that the van’s provenance can be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Wendy Carter, Chris Carter’s wife of five years, said she was uncomfortable with the way her husband acquired the van, but she supported him in the pursuit of his passion before the couple split earlier this year. They’re now in divorce proceedings, she said.

Wendy Carter, 44, of Bethalto, is an accounts payable specialist in St. Louis. She expects the dispute between Chris Carter and Laura Godin to somehow be settled in court.

“I honestly think she should get her van back,” Wendy Carter said. “It was on her property. It wasn’t hurting anybody.”

Wild Cherry cruises Van Nuys

Last week, Chris Carter led the Wild Cherry Van Run caravan from Illinois to Los Angeles, picking up fans in Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona. Once in California, they participated in a car show and cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, where producers filmed shots for the 1979 B-movie geared toward teenage hot-rodders.

Godin had planned to show up at the car cruise Wednesday night and call police, but the day before, she said she wasn’t feeling well.

One photo circulating on Facebook and Instagram shows Carter posing with two California police officers, smiling and extending middle fingers. One “Vanner Inc.” follower wrote, “now that is a smack in the face of the doubters.” Another replied, “which is alienating vanners even more. He is seriously not thinking like an adult.”

Chris with police
This photo circulating on Facebook shows Chris Carter, who restored the Wild Cherry van, posing with police officers in California, where he cruised on Van Nuys Boulevard on Sept. 19.

Special guests at a hotel party before the car cruise included former Wild Cherry owner Massalas. He was particularly excited to meet William Sachs, who directed “Van Nuys Blvd.” and other cult classics such as “The Incredible Melting Man” and “Galaxina.” Carter visited Sachs at his California home earlier this year.

“(The cruise) was a good time,” Massalas said. “It was very similar to what it was like back in the day.”

As for the van controversy, “I don’t know what to think,” said Massalas, who works in sales, marketing, insurance and financial consulting. He became acquainted with Carter in 2016 — when Carter was doing research on the Wild Cherry — and he went with him to the 46th Van Nationals in July.

Massalas said Friday, “If somebody came onto my property and took something that belonged to me, I wouldn’t be happy about it.”

Rumors have been flying around social media that California police arrested Carter and impounded the Wild Cherry, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t arrested anyone matching his description in the past week. The case has turned vanners across the county into amateur sleuths, collecting tidbits of information and sharing theories on how the saga will end.

Some people clearly have mixed feelings — or at least empathy — for both Carter and Godin. One “Vanner Inc.” follower wrote, “I hope they can work it out ... with all the publicity (and) documentary, I don’t think he was trying to steal it. ... for god sakes, he was cleaning up the land.”

Another comment combined a prediction with a compliment to Carter: “Good Luck, think your (sic) going to lose the van. Nice restoration tho.”