A California woman says a metro-east man stole the Wild Cherry van from her property last fall, but he insists he went through proper channels to rescue and restore the vehicle after finding it rusted, singed by a wildfire, smashed by a fallen tree and abandoned along a dirt road.
The red Chevy van with the words “Wild Cherry” painted on each side in gold has been part of vanning history since 1979, when it appeared in the B movie “Van Nuys Blvd.”
Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville is so confident in his ownership that he left Saturday on a cross-country road trip, leading a caravan of van enthusiasts from several states. They arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday and hosted a car show and joined a car cruise on Van Nuys Boulevard on Wednesday.
“My conscience is clear — 100 percent,” Carter said early Saturday morning.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
He was polishing the 1975 restored van in the parking lot of the LakeHouse at Buffalo Park in Maryville, where the caravan started with about 10 vans whose drivers consider him a hero for bringing the Wild Cherry back to life. They picked up more fans in Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona over the weekend.
Many learned of Carter’s restoration project from the van’s Facebook page, which has more than 5,000 followers. People from several countries have bought T-shirts, donated parts or contributed to a GoFundMe account.
But hoopla surrounding the Wild Cherry Van Run, as the caravan is being called, has angered Laura Godin, 54, of Burbank, California, who says her family has owned the van since 1980 and that Carter took it without permission from their 20-acre property in the mountainous desert near Lancaster, California, north of Los Angeles.
“Nobody has the right to go on anybody’s property and do this,” she said. “... It’s insane.”
Godin said the van hadn’t been registered since the early 1990s, but that she and her husband, Steven, who bought it as a teenager, had dreamed of restoring it someday. She reported the van stolen at the Lancaster station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on June 25.
“Unfortunately, I can’t give you any information because it’s under investigation,” Detective Sean Maloney said Monday, noting that he has looked over the Wild Cherry Facebook page and talked to some of the parties involved, but not Carter. “He hasn’t returned any of my calls.”
Carter registered the van in Illinois earlier this year. The license plate reads “VANUYS.”
15 seconds of fame
Van Nuys Boulevard is a 10-mile road in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a wildly popular cruising strip for young people in hot rods, vans and classic cars.
Nick Massalas, 59, of San Diego, California, owned the Wild Cherry in the late ‘70s. He named it after seeing his girlfriend come out of school with a can of Canada Dry wild cherry soda and paid a man $75 to paint the name on the sides and add fancy pinstriping. That artwork and the van’s newfangled tinted windows caught the eye of a “Van Nuys Blvd.” producer, who filmed it cruising and sitting at a stoplight. Both clips are in the movie’s 2-minute trailer.
“A small-town kid hears about the wild nights of cruising the boulevard in Van Nuys, California,” states the IMDb plot summary. “He drives out there to check it out, and gets involved with drag racers, topless dancers and bikers.”
Massalas eventually traded the van for a 1957 Chevy and $2,500 in cash and lost track of it for nearly four decades, he said in a February interview.
According to Godin, her husband was 18 when he cashed in savings bonds and bought the Wild Cherry from a neighbor in 1980, a year before they got married. The couple cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in it, took it to Malibu and Yosemite National Park and lived in it for six months.
“(Carter) has no idea the sentimental value that I hold in my heart for that van,” Godin said. “... It’s been mine since I was 16. He has no idea what it means to me.”
The couple lived in a trailer and later a cabin on the property near Lancaster in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Then they moved to Burbank — where Godin’s husband worked as a transit-district mechanic — but they kept paying taxes on the 20 acres and visited every two or three years, she said.
The Lancaster office of the Los Angeles County assessor verified that Godin’s property tax payments are up-to-date on the parcel, located in an area known as “Sawmill Mountain.”
“That’s why I continued to pay my property taxes, to keep what I had there,” she said.
The couple stopped registering the van, partly because they had two young sons and it wasn’t suitable for children’s car seats, Godin said, but they didn’t want to get rid of it. In later years, two fires swept through the mountains. The second one burned down their cabin, destroyed a 1963 Chevy truck on the property and damaged the Wild Cherry.
“We thought it was still there. We didn’t know it was missing,” said Godin, who learned about the van’s removal in early June, after Carter reached out to her son Steven Jr., looking for information.
Man on a mission
Carter is a longtime auto-body man who recently started his own business, Wild Cherry Customs.
He was was only a baby when “Van Nuys Blvd.” was released, but he saw a Facebook post in 2016 with a photo of the dilapidated Wild Cherry van paired with its movie screen shot. He became obsessed with trying to find the photographer and, by extension, the van’s location.
“After I saw the picture, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Carter said in February. “To see that van abandoned with a tree on it, and to know its former glory, how nice that it looked, how it was in a movie ... I knew I had to do something.”
Carter spent a year doing research — messaging, emailing and calling people all over the country. He said he eventually made contact with the photographer, Mike Hutchings, and became convinced that a small brown rectangle on an aerial Google map of a wilderness area near Lancaster was the Wild Cherry. In late November, he and a friend rented a trailer and drove 1,900 miles to retrieve it.
A locked gate caused a moment of despair, Carter said, but a local landowner agreed to open it and let him drive up the dirt road. The landowner called another neighbor, a deputy sheriff, who arrived in his squad car, as shown in a photo that Carter took at the scene. The Illinois men loaded up the van and hauled it down the mountain.
“In California, you have to register a vehicle every year, and if you don’t do it for so many years, you lose ownership,” Carter said. “And if it’s abandoned, the state can impound it and sell it for scrap or whatever.”
Several details about the van’s removal are in dispute. Godin says the title was in the van, which is why she no longer possesses it. Carter said he didn’t find the title, that he told neighbors exactly what he was trying to do and that they described the vehicle as “abandoned.”
The California Highway Patrol has an Abandoned Vehicle Abatement program that includes a process for removal of abandoned vehicles, said Officer Ian Hoey, based at state headquarters in Sacramento. But Los Angeles County isn’t one of the 39 counties that participate in the program.
Hoey declined to comment on the Wild Cherry case without knowing details, but spoke about California law in general.
“If somebody has a vehicle on their private property, and somebody removes it without authorization, it is stolen — pending other unusual circumstances,” he said.
Godin had planned to go to the Van Nuys Boulevard car cruise on Wednesday and call police when she saw the Wild Cherry.
“I want my van back,” she said. “... (Carter) took it across four state lines. Why didn’t he contact me before he started restoring it?”
Carter said his restoration activities have been widely publicized through Facebook in the past year, and that he cooperated when a police officer called him asking questions about the van. In July, he and Massalas showed off the Wild Cherry at the Van Nationals in Indiana.
“(If it was stolen), she would have sent the cops over to retrieve it,” Carter said. “It’s not like it’s hard to find. I’ve broadcast it all over.”
Nostalgic road trip
On Saturday morning, the dispute over who owns the Wild Cherry van seemed far from the minds of caravan drivers gathered at the LakeHouse in Maryville, headed for California. Some didn’t even know about it.
Carter was in particularly good spirits.
“If I think back to a year ago, I was still searching, wishing I could get my hands on (the Wild Cherry),” he said. “And here we are now. It’s crazy.”
Facebook followers David Gucker and his wife, Lisa, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, took their children, David Jr., 14, and Samantha, 15, out of school to be part of the nostalgic 1,800-mile road trip. They’re riding in the family’s white 1995 Chevy van with purple trim — homework in tow.
“I’m a car guy,” said Gucker, 47, who works in property management. “I’ve been turning wrenches for a long time, and when I saw that (Carter) had restored the Cherry, I decided I’d follow along and see what happens.”
Fire-alarm technician Steve Jungwirth, 49, and his “unofficial foster son,” Damion Leeman, 20, came from Manitowish, Wisconsin, intrigued by the Wild Cherry story. They’re riding in a brown 1977 Ford van that Jungwirth’s father bought new. It was mothballed for nearly 20 years before he restored it.
David “Super Dave” Renda, 63, of Gloversville, New York, is driving a red Chevy van that he bought in 1981.
“As cliche as it sounds, this is a bucket-list thing for me,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for 40 years. Three months after I bought my van, I got a job with a gas and electric company, and I became a slave to the dollar. But I retired five years ago. I got wind of the (Wild Cherry) story and found out they were staying in hotels instead of camping, and I decided to throw my hat into the ring.”
Tim Dempsey, 21, of Edison, Ohio, was driving a pickup truck and pulling a trailer with a blue 1967 Ford Econoline van on it. He was delivering the van to his father, Steve, in Amarillo, Texas, who planned to drive it the rest of the way to Los Angeles.
A few people showed up at the LakeHouse just to give the caravan an enthusiastic send-off. That included Doug Callies, 70, of Edwardsville, and his great-grandson, Jimmy Schehl, 11.
“I wanted this young man to see this and feel this,” said Callies, a retired corporate insurance rep who drives a red 1964 Pontiac Catalina. “And I’m here to support this idea and concept and wish them well on Route 66. I did it when I was 18 years old. I had a ‘62 Corvette. It was just like in the movies. ... I admire (Carter’s) passion and his gift for restoration. He did it himself without paying a garage. He has heart.”
Carter’s grandmother, Vicki Carter, 67, of Fort Myers, Florida, planned hotel stays and restaurant stops along the route. She’s driving her white 1984 Ford van, which she calls the “Wild Apple.” Her late husband, Ron, gave Chris Carter his start at Maaco, an auto-body shop he owned in Swansea.
Carter’s co-pilot for for the cross-country adventure is his girlfriend, Liz Duncan, 43, owner of a Maryville pawn shop. On Saturday, she was wearing a Wild Cherry shirt and cherry earrings and had her nails and toenails painted metallic red.
“I’ve got cherry everything,” she said. “Cherry jewelry, cherry shirts ... I’ve got a cute ‘50s-style cherry dress for the car show. I have tennis shoes with cherries painted on them. I’ve got a cherry purse, a cherry wallet, a cherry jean jacket. I have enough stuff that I can wear cherries every day.”