Police are still are looking for a 1975 candy-apple red Chevy van known as the “Wild Cherry,” after having arrested a Collinsville man on charges of stealing it from a mountainous desert in California.
The van appeared in the B movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” in 1979 and largely disappeared for more than three decades before Chris Carter, 39, retrieved it last fall and restored it.
He has been in the Madison County Jail since his Oct. 3 arrest on felony theft charges. Two detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department plan to come and get him later this month.
“We haven’t found the van,” Detective Sean Maloney said this week. “It’s still hidden.”
The department’s Lancaster station, where the investigation is based, has posted a special bulletin on its Facebook page, asking the public to contact police with any information on the restored van, which has fancy gold pinstriping and the words “Wild Cherry” painted on the sides.
Carter drove the van back to Los Angeles in mid-September as part of a “Wild Cherry Van Run,” which ended with a nostalgic cruise on Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.
In recent weeks, Maloney has been in contact with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, which also enlisted the help of Collinsville Police Department in its search for the missing vehicle.
“(Officers) went to the 600 block of West Madison and looked for the van and didn’t see it,” said Lt. Gary Scaggs.
On Oct. 5, Madison County Circuit Court Judge Janet Heflin set Carter’s bond at $25,000. He was preparing to leave the jail but never made it out because the judge rescinded the bond order that afternoon.
“The county that he’s wanted in has been notified that he is on our custody, and they can come and pick him up,” Circuit Clerk office Felony Supervisor Lisa Williams said Tuesday.
A roller-coaster year for the Illinois man
Carter is a former body-shop employee who became interested in the Wild Cherry in 2016, when a photo was widely circulated on Facebook showing it rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire.
After a year of research, Carter located the van near Lancaster, California, on Google Maps in November. He and a friend drove 1,900 miles, loaded the vehicle on a trailer and hauled it back to Illinois. People from all over the country helped with restoration costs by buying T-shirts and other souvenirs, donating parts and contributing nearly $6,000 to a GoFundMe campaign.
In June, the van was reported stolen by Laura Godin, 54, of Burbank, California, who co-owns the property where it had been parked. She and her husband, Steven, stopped registering it in the early 1990s, but she said they had dreamed of restoring it someday.
Godin has declined comment in recent weeks.
“(Carter) has no idea the sentimental value that I hold in my heart for that van,” she said last month.
Carter was arrested Oct. 3 on a fugitive warrant out of California when he showed up at Madison County Courthouse for a divorce hearing.
He has been charged with two felony counts of driving or taking a vehicle without consent and one misdemeanor count of trespassing by driving on private property. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has asked for a maximum sentence of four years and two months in prison for convictions on all three.
Carter has told the Belleville News-Democrat and stated on Facebook and Instagram that he took possession of the van with help from local property owners, including a sheriff’s deputy, who called it “abandoned.” One man reportedly unlocked a gate, allowing him to drive up the private dirt road.
This week, Maloney declined to comment on specifics of the Wild Cherry case but presented a hypothetical:
‘’If you had a gate that led up to your house, and your neighbor unlocked it, and I went in and took your car from your driveway, would that be OK? Can your neighbor do that?”
Van enthusiasts continue the debate online
The Wild Cherry dispute continues to stir controversy among classic-car and van enthusiasts across the country. People use Facebook group pages to debate whether Carter is a hero for his rescue and restoration of the van or a thief for not getting permission to take it.
On Oct. 4, Carter’s supporters started a second GoFundMe campaign under the heading “Save Chris Carter and ‘Wild Cherry.’” As of Thursday, 18 people had contributed $910 of the $20,000 goal.
“Please help raise money for Chris,” the campaign description states. “We believe the van ‘Wild Cherry’ was legally obtained by Mr. Carter and he is now being wrongly accused since the new found popularity of ‘Wild Cherry.’ All money raised will go to Mr. Carter’s legal fees.”
Several people have posted comments on the page, arguing that Carter truly believed he had discovered an abandoned vehicle and that he wouldn’t have publicized the project if he had stolen it. Some paint Godin as an opportunist who didn’t care about the van until Carter made it famous.
Comments range from “Innocent until proven guilty” to “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” to “He’s my grandson, and I love him.”
“I believe Chris deserves High Praise for all the hard work he’s put in Saving this iconic piece of cruising history,” one man wrote. “I also believe that this is a Witch Hunt once the previous owner found out how popular the van was and how beautiful Chris made it Chris Carter is the rightful owner of wild cherry now.”
Elsewhere on social media, some of Carter’s critics have expressed regret that they contributed to the first Wild Cherry fundraiser. Others question whether the second one is appropriate, given that it’s raising money for legal fees of a man accused of a crime.
Bart Jackson, regional communications manager for GoFundMe, declined to comment, but emailed the following statement:
“This campaign does not violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and remains active. Donations made to both campaigns are covered by our GoFundMe Guarantee, and refund requests will be honored.”
Jackson didn’t say whether the company had received any complaints about the first campaign.
Former boss at body shop speaks out
One person who has strong feelings about the Wild Cherry case is Tim Welch, 53, of Gillespie, owner of Welch’s Route 66 auto-body shop, where Carter formerly worked.
Welch was an early supporter who helped Carter unload the van in early December and allowed him to work on it at his shop. He also bought a 1976 Chevy van for Carter to use as a “donor van” for replacement parts and paid for him to travel to New York to pick it up.
But their relationship quickly deteriorated, Welch said, and he fired Carter.
“He’s a dirtbag,” Welch said Thursday. “He got $10,000 out of me. I tried to help him, but when I found out from a good source that the van was stolen, it left my shop and so did he.”
Beyond theft charges, Welch said Carter will likely be in trouble for “washing” the vehicle’s title, presenting a “bogus” bill of sale to obtain a title in Florida, where laws are less stringent on what is required as proof of purchase; and then using that title to get a second one in Illinois.
State records show that VIN No. CGY155U143803 belongs to a 1976 Chevrolet that was registered in Florida in December. Carter’s grandmother, Vicki Carter, said in September that she lives in Fort Myers.
The same VIN corresponds with an Illinois Secretary of State record for a 1975 Chevrolet registered in August to a Vicki Carter with a Collinsville address. The Wild Cherry now has an Illinois vanity license plate with “VANUYS” on it.
“I’ve been in this business for 43 years, and people like (Chris Carter) kill our business,” said Welch, who has owned the Gillespie body shop for nine years and also restores classic cars for a hobby. “You don’t know who to trust and who not to trust. ... He’s a con man.”