Recent photos of the “Wild Cherry” are shocking to people who love classic vehicles.
The restored 1975 Chevy van is now stripped and partially painted black. Gone are the doors, engine, grill, headlights, taillights, mag wheels, porthole windows, rear-view mirrors, fiberglass flares, chin spoiler, dashboard, dog house, bucket seats, paneling, shag carpeting and stereo.
You can still see outlines of fancy gold letters spelling out “Wild Cherry” on one side, under a layer of black paint.
“It’s the worst stripped vehicle I’ve seen in my 17 years as a police officer,” said Detective Sean Maloney, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who took the photos for evidence.
“There’s nothing left,” he added. “It’s a bummer.”
The last time the van had been seen in public was mid-September, when Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville, drove it to California and cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. He had restored it to the way it looked in the 1979 B movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” with help from vanning enthusiasts all over the country.
But the Wild Cherry disappeared after the cruise, just as Maloney and his partner were ramping up a stolen-vehicle investigation. Laura Godin, 54, of Burbank, California, had reported the van missing from her property in a mountainous desert near Lancaster.
Carter has maintained that the dilapidated, unregistered vehicle was “abandoned” when he found it in November of 2017 and that local landowners, including a deputy sheriff, unlocked a gate on a shared dirt road and allowed him to haul it off.
Carter released on bond
Carter was arrested Oct. 3 in Edwardsville on his way to a divorce hearing. He remained in the Madison County Jail until Oct. 26, when Maloney and his partner flew him back to California to face charges. He was released the next day after posting $2,000 of his $25,000 bond.
The stripped and painted Wild Cherry surfaced on Oct. 23, when California Department of Transportation employees notified police that it was parked along a road in Van Nuys, near the hotel where Carter had stayed in September.
“If anybody has any information about who vandalized the van should give me a call,” Maloney said, noting officials believe it was “dumped” about a month ago and that someone other than Carter was involved.
Maloney is based in the sheriff’s department’s Lancaster station. His number is 661-948-8466.
Carter 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.
When asked last week if Carter was cooperating with police, Maloney said, “No.”
Carter’s arraignment is set for Nov. 29 at Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster. That generally would be followed by a preliminary hearing and a judge’s decision on whether the case should go to trial.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be a negotiated plea, but I’m not aware of anything like that at this point,” said Ricardo Santiago, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
Neither Carter nor Godin could be reached for comment.
How was title obtained?
Beyond the stolen-vehicle case, officials wonder how three people, including Carter, were able to title and register the Wild Cherry, first in Florida and later in Illinois.
The van’s vehicle identification number, CGY155U143803, corresponds with a current Illinois Secretary of State record for a 1975 Chevrolet registered to Vicki Carter, using a Collinsville address, according to spokesman Dave Druker. Vicki is Chris Carter’s grandmother.
“On Dec. 27, 2017, the van was titled in Florida to a Terry Wheeler,” Druker said. “On Jan. 2, 2018, Christopher Carter applied for (Illinois) plates and title. The Florida title was signed over to him by Wheeler, who lives in DeBary, Florida. Vicki Carter apparently bought the van on Feb. 14, and she got a title on Aug. 27.”
“We ran it through police records and didn’t find any indication it was stolen,” Druker added.
The VIN also corresponds with a record for a red 1976 Chevrolet G-10 van registered on Dec. 27, 2017, with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Wheeler acquired the vehicle on Dec. 23, 2017, according to his title application. He also submitted a notice of sale and wrote “even trade” in the box for selling price. Deputy Communications Director Alexis Bakofsky said she didn’t know why the Florida paperwork listed the year at 1976 instead of 1975.
“The titling problem is going to have to be handled in Illinois and Florida,” Maloney said, noting that it’s out of his jurisdiction.
Vehicle owners can ask Illinois Secretary of State police or local law enforcement to conduct investigations if they believe titles were obtained fraudulently, Druker said.
No charges have been filed against Vicki Carter, who said in September she was living in Fort Myers, Florida.
Some donors get refunds
Earlier this year, Chris Carter became a celebrity in the national vanning community. Thousands followed the Wild Cherry’s restoration on Facebook. They bought T-shirts and other souvenirs, donated parts and contributed to a GoFundMe campaign.
But enthusiasm turned to controversy in September, when people learned that Godin had reported the van missing on June 25. Her husband, Steven, bought the vehicle in 1980. The couple parked it and stopped registering it in the early 1990s but hoped to restore it someday, Laura Godin said.
Today, there are two camps: Those who think Carter is a hero for rescuing and restoring a classic vehicle that was rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire; and those who consider him a thief for not getting permission to take it.
In the past month, fans have donated $960 to a second GoFundMe campaign that’s raising money for Carter’s legal defense.
Some critics have apparently asked for refunds on contributions they made to the first campaign, which had raised $5,908 by mid-September. On Monday, the amount was $5,753.
“It took a few days, but as of this afternoon, they are refunding the $105 I gave CC,” one man wrote on Facebook. “They were an absolute joy to deal with. Very helpful. “
A GoFundMe representative could not be reached for comment.
Trademark efforts continue
In another development, Carter appears to be moving forward with efforts to get a trademark on the words “wild cherry” from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
If approved, it would prevent others from profiting on related 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.
Carter applied for the trademark on Dec. 10, 2017, about two weeks after finding the van. A notice was “published for opposition” in the agency’s Official Gazette. No one filed an objection during the designated period of April 24 to June 19.
Carter then had six months to submit a “statement of use,” proving that he was using the trademark for commerce, according to Paul Fucito, press secretary for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
That statement, along with a change of contact information, was submitted Oct. 23, when Carter was still in the Madison County Jail. Now an examining attorney will review all the materials and decide whether the application meets federal guidelines.
“Once a trademark is registered, there are still opportunities to challenge it,” Fucito said.