The Illinois man who restored the Wild Cherry van before he was arrested on charges of stealing it will plead “not guilty” at his Nov. 29 arraignment, according to his attorney.
“We feel like we have a bonafide claim of ownership of the van,” said Chad Eberhardt, of Eberhardt Law Group in Orange County, California, who came on board about a month ago to represent Chris Carter, 39, of Collinsville, in the criminal case.
Eberhardt said the Carter family has hired a second attorney to file a civil lawsuit against Laura Godin, the woman who reported the 1975 red Chevy van stolen from mountainous desert property she owns with her husband, Steven Godin, near Lancaster, north of Los Angeles.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Earlier this year, Carter told the Belleville News-Democrat and posted on social media that local landowners, including a sheriff’s deputy, called the van “abandoned,” unlocked a gate on a shared dirt road and allowed him to load the van on a trailer and haul it back to Illinois in November of 2017.
Eberhardt said last week that the van’s legal history is sketchy, civil court is the best place to settle an ownership dispute and a ruling in Carter’s favor could help his criminal defense.
“(His willingness to sue) shows how confident Chris is that he is the owner,” Eberhardt said.
Laura Godin breaks silence
The van became known as the “Wild Cherry” after an early owner had the words painted on the sides in fancy gold lettering. It’s of interest to the national vanning community, partly because of nostalgia. It briefly appeared in the 1979 hot-rod movie “Van Nuys Blvd.”
Laura Godin, 54, of Burbank, California, hasn’t spoken publicly about the case for two months. But last week, she reiterated her belief that it’s wrong for someone to remove a vehicle from private property without permission, no matter its condition.
“(The van) wasn’t abandoned,” she said. “It was never ‘lost.’ It’s just that we didn’t have the funds to restore it.”
Godin has said her husband bought the van in 1980 and that the couple cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in it, took it to Yosemite National Park and lived in it for six months. They stopped registering it in the early 1990s and parked it on their 20-acre property, beside a small home that later burned in a wildfire.
The family only visited the property every two or three years, Godin said, but they kept paying taxes on it. She reported the van stolen in June, maintaining that the title was inside.
Godin said the Wild Cherrry had sentimental value for her family with its eight-track player, CB radio and hippie stickers, one reading, “Cash, ass or grass. Nobody rides for free.”
“We were all young and wild once,” Godin said.
Classic van is ‘ruined’
Carter, a former body-shop employee, has said he became interested in the Wild Cherry after seeing a Facebook photo showing it rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire. He spent a year doing online research before pinpointing its location on Google Maps.
After retrieving the classic van, Carter restored it with help from Facebook fans who donated parts, bought souvenirs and contributed nearly $6,000 to a GoFundMe campaign. He drove it back to Los Angeles in September as part of a “Wild Cherry Van Run.”
After a cruise on Van Nuys Boulevard, the van disappeared from public view. It was found Oct. 23 parked along a road in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles, stripped and partially painted black.
Godin saw the trashed van after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department impounded it.
“I literally was speechless and crying,” she said. “It didn’t need to go like this. It didn’t have to escalate. It was our van.”
Detective Sean Maloney is seeking information on who may have been involved in the vandalism. But Godin places the blame squarely on Carter for the Wild Cherry’s demise.
“He ruined it,” Godin said. “It looks worse than it did to begin with.”
Charges seen as too severe
Eberhardt maintains that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office went overboard in charging Carter with two theft-related felony counts and one misdemeanor count of trespassing.
Carter was arrested Oct. 3 outside the Madison County Courthouse on his way to a divorce hearing. An Illinois judge denied bond, and he spent 23 days in jail before being extradited to California on Oct. 26. He was released the next day after paying $2,000 of his $25,000 bond.
Eberhardt said that was a “tragedy,” considering Carter believed he was the van’s “rightful owner.”
“This should be a civil case,” Eberhardt said. “This shouldn’t be a criminal case where his liberty was taken away and he was held for almost four weeks.”
Godin has a different view. The Wild Cherry saga has set off a national debate in the vanning community, and that has been upsetting for her and her husband, their two sons and other family, she said. They have received anonymous phone calls and emails from people who appear to Carter’s supporters.
Godin said she also has been hurt by people on social media portraying her as an opportunist who didn’t care about the van until Carter restored it and made it valuable.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to get the van back,” she said. “But if I did get it back, I wasn’t going to keep it. I was going to donate it to a museum.”
What does Godin think will happen to Carter?
“What I think and what I hope are two different things,” she said. “I hope that he’s going to have some consequences for what he did. ... It’s terrible what happened to the van.”