The wild ride of the ‘Wild Cherry’ van
Police have recovered a 1975 Chevy van that could be the “Wild Cherry,” but it has been stripped and partially painted.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives also have gone to the Madison County Jail and picked up Chris Carter, the Illinois man who allegedly stole the vehicle before he restored it with help from Facebook friends all over the country. He’s headed back to California to face charges.
“(The detectives) came in yesterday, and they’re taking him back to California today,” said Capt. Mike Dixon of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department on Friday morning.
“He’s gone,” a jail attendant said Friday afternoon.
The Los Angeles Police Department took possession of a van with VIN No. CGY155U143803 on Tuesday, according to Cheryl Peralta, an administrative assistant at its Van Nuys station.
That VIN corresponds with an Illinois Secretary of State record for a 1975 Chevrolet registered in August to Vicki Carter, Chris Carter’s grandmother, showing a Collinsville address; and with a Florida record for a 1976 Chevrolet registered in December.
“The dashboard, the engine, the transmission and the plates are missing,” Peralta said Friday of the van recovered this week.
The LAPD has the van locked up at Keystone Towing, its impound facility in Van Nuys, California.
“It looks like it used to be red, but they painted over it,” said a Keystone employee who asked not to be named. “Just the roof part is red, and the rest of it is black.”
“It looks pretty stripped,” she added.
The van was reportedly found by the California Department of Transportation, which is responsible for building and maintaining state highways and helping to keep them safe.
As of press time, department spokesman Michael Comeaux wasn’t able to determine exactly where the van had been located or who reported it.
“We would deal with it only if it was left on the shoulder of a state highway or in a right-of-way,” he said.
The only other possibility, Comeaux said, would be if the vehicle had been “dumped” or illegally parked at a California Department of Transportation storage facility or construction site.
Detective Sean Maloney, who’s investigating the case for the Lancaster station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Wild Cherry appeared in the B movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” in 1979 and largely disappeared for more than three decades.
Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville, is a former body-shop employee who became interested in the van in 2016, when a photo was widely circulated on Facebook showing it rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire.
“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.”
After a year of research, Carter located the van near Lancaster, California, on Google Maps. He hauled it back to Illinois in November. Dozens of people helped with restoration costs by buying T-shirts and other souvenirs, donating parts and contributing nearly $6,000 to a GoFundMe campaign. Carter also used a 1976 donor van for parts.
In June, the Wild Cherry 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 the vehicle 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 told the Belleville News-Democrat and stated on Facebook and Instagram that he took the van with the blessing of local property owners, including a sheriff’s deputy, who called it “abandoned.” One man reportedly unlocked a gate, allowing him to access a private dirt road he shared with the Godins.
Carter drove the restored 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.
Carter has been in jail since Oct. 3, when he was arrested on his way to a divorce hearing at the Madison County Courthouse.
He is 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.
On Oct. 4, the Lancaster station posted a special bulletin on its Facebook page, asking the public to contact police with any information on the van, which had fancy gold pinstriping and the words “Wild Cherry” painted on the sides. Investigators also enlisted the help of Illinois law enforcement in its search for the missing vehicle.
The case has sparked fierce debate in the national vanning community, with some people calling Carter a “hero” for his rescue and restoration of the classic van while others consider him a thief for not getting permission to take it.
Also on Oct. 4, Carter’s supporters started a second GoFundMe campaign under the heading “Save Chris Carter and ‘Wild Cherry.’” As of Friday, 19 people had contributed $960 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.”