Metro-East News

Man who restored Wild Cherry van arrested at divorce hearing

An Illinois man who gained national notoriety for rescuing and restoring the “Wild Cherry” van was in Madison County jail Thursday on felony charges of stealing the vehicle from a California couple.

The 1975 red Chevy van with the words “Wild Cherry” painted on the sides appeared in the B movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” in 1979.

Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville, was arrested on a fugitive warrant at the Madison County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, according to Capt. Mike Dixon, chief of detectives with Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

“They’re going to extradite him all the way to California it looks like,” Dixon said Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, a Madison County judge denied bond. On Friday morning, another judge reconsidered and set bond at $25,000, Dixon said. Carter paid $2,500 and was being released from jail as of Friday afternoon. He will have to travel to California for court proceedings.

Charges include two felony counts of driving or taking a vehicle without consent and one misdemeanor count of trespass by driving on private property, with a maximum sentence of four years and two months in prison for convictions on all three, said Ricardo Santiago, spokesman for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office.

“The (van) was not recovered,” Dixon said, noting that the county had asked Collinsville Police Department to help with locating it. “It wasn’t recovered in Collinsville, and it was not something that he drove here. We don’t have the (van).”

Chris Carter mug.jpg
Madison County Sheriff’s Department released this booking photo for Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville, who was arrested Oct. 3 on charges of stealing the Wild Cherry van. Provided

Carter was arrested before entering the courthouse for a 2:30 p.m. divorce hearing, according to his wife, Wendy Carter, 44, of Bethalto. She is an accounts payable specialist in St. Louis and has been married to him for five years.

The hearing was postponed until Nov. 14.

“He’s going to be locked up for a while,” Wendy Carter said Thursday morning. “I was like, dude, can’t you just sign the papers first? I just want out of this. ... I just want to go back to my regular life.”

Chris Carter has widely told his Wild Cherry story on social media and in the Belleville News-Democrat. It began in 2016, when the former body-shop employee saw a Facebook photo showing the van rusted, smashed by a tree and singed by a wildfire. After a year of research, he located it on a Google satellite map.

“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.”

Van with tree
Chris Carter first became interested in the Wild Cherry van when he saw this photo, taken by a California man walking a dog, which made the rounds on Facebook in 2016. Provided Provided

In November, Carter and a friend drove 1,900 miles to retrieve the van from a mountainous desert near Lancaster, California.

Carter has said area residents called the van “abandoned.” One unlocked a gate and allowed him to drive up a dirt road, load it on a trailer and haul it back to Illinois.

“We didn’t know it was missing,” Laura Godin said last month. She is the Burbank, California, woman who co-owns the isolated property where the van was parked for nearly 30 years. Her husband, Steven Godin, bought the Wild Cherry in 1980.

Beginning in December, van enthusiasts from across the country followed Carter’s restoration process on Facebook. Some donated parts. Others contributed money through a GoFundMe account, which raised nearly $6,000.

On June 25, Laura Godin filed a stolen-vehicle report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. She acknowledged that the van hadn’t been registered since the early 1990s but said she and her husband had dreams of restoring it someday.

“(Carter) has no idea the sentimental value that I hold in my heart for that van,” Godin, 54, said last month. “... It’s been mine since I was 16. He has no idea what it means to me.”

Laura and Steven.jpg
Laura Godin, shown here with her husband, Steven, is upset that a metro-east man removed the Wild Cherry van from their property in the mountains near Lancaster, California. Provided

Despite the legal issues, Carter led a caravan to Los Angeles in September, cruising the Wild Cherry on Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley and posing for photos with police officers. He then took down his Facebook page and largely disappeared.

Carter has not responded to requests for comment since mid-September.

“He’s not talking to anybody right now, but they’re still selling Wild Cherry memorabilia,” Wendy Carter said.

In the past nine months, Chris Carter has often noted that his Wild Cherry experience “would make a great movie.” The BND recently learned that on Dec. 10 he applied for a trademark on the words “Wild Cherry” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

No one objected when the application was “published for opposition” from April 24 to June 19. Carter now has six months to file a “statement of use” before the trademark can be approved.

A trademark would prevent others from profiting on Wild Cherry goods and services, including “athletic apparel, namely, shirts, pants, jackets, footwear, hats and caps, athletic uniforms, design of models, sets and props for motion pictures, videos, commercials and movie trailers,” according to the application.

Wendy Carter has 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.

On Thursday, she said many of Chris Carter’s friends and family members believe that he shouldn’t have taken the van without permission from the owner.

“I honestly think (Laura Godin) should get her van back,” Wendy Carter said last month. “It was on her property. It wasn’t hurting anybody.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter