The wild ride of the ‘Wild Cherry’ van
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office maintains that Chris Carter, 40, violated a California law against “dissuading a witness from prosecuting a crime.”
“On Oct. 9, the defendant filed a civil lawsuit against the alleged victim, and that’s where the charge comes from,” said Ricardo Santiago, spokesman for the district attorney.
Carter already was facing 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.
“We are not the least bit worried about the new charge,” stated Chad Eberhardt, Carter’s attorney, in an email this week.
Eberhardt declined further comment. In November, he said Carter would plead “not guilty” to the other charges.
S. Michael Kernan, another California attorney, is handling Carter’s civil case in Los Angeles Superior Court. It was filed against Laura Godin and her husband, Steven.
Last summer, Laura Godin, 54, of Burbank, California, reported the Wild Cherry stolen from the couple’s 20-acre property in a mountainous desert near Lancaster, California.
“The whole thing that (Carter) did was wrong,” she said by phone this week. “Shame on him.”
The 1975 Chevy G-10 van is no longer in restored condition (candy apple red with “Wild Cherry” painted on the sides in fancy gold lettering). It was found Oct. 23 along a road in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, stripped and partially painted black. It’s now in police custody.
In the civil lawsuit, Carter is asking the court to declare that he owns the van “due to Defendant’s abandonment or other legal loss of title.”
“The Plaintiff went through proper channels to rescue and restore the van after finding it rusted, singed by a wildfire, smashed by a fallen tree and abandoned along a dirt road,” according to the complaint.
The complaint argues that the Wild Cherry “was not even a vehicle” because of its extensive damage and no engine. On Oct. 15, Kernan submitted a clarification, saying the van was located on a “public street” known as Danielson Mountain Way.
Last 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 to a shared dirt road and allowed him to load the van on a trailer and haul it away in November of 2017.
“We feel like we have a bonafide claim of ownership of the van,” Eberhardt said last November.
Laura Godin maintains that her husband bought the Wild Cherry in 1980; that the couple drove it until the early 1990s, when they stopped registering it and parked it on their property; that they left the title in the van; and that they hoped to restore it someday.
If the court determines that the Godins didn’t abandon the van, Carter’s lawsuit asks that they be required to pay him for his restoration work and materials.
Carter’s arraignment on the two felonies and two misdemeanors is scheduled for Feb. 20 at Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster. It has been postponed twice.
“That is where he’ll enter his plea — guilty or not guilty — or the case could be continued or they could settle out (agree to a plea deal),” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective Sean Maloney, who is investigating the case. “So many things could happen.”
The Godins aren’t planning to attend Carter’s arraignment.
“Unless we have to be there, we don’t really want to be there,” Laura Godin said.
Carter formerly worked at a Gillespie body shop. He became interested in the Wild Cherry after seeing a photo on Facebook and spent a year doing research before pinpointing its location on Google Maps.
“After I saw the picture, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Carter said in February of 2018. “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 hauling the Wild Cherry from California to Illinois, Carter restored it with help from Facebook fans all over the country who donated parts and contributed to a GoFundMe campaign.
In September, Carter led a van caravan from Maryville to Los Angeles and cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. He was arrested Oct. 3 outside Madison County Courthouse, extradited to California and released on bond Oct. 26.
Last fall, Eberhardt argued that the sheriff’s department and district attorney went overboard in charging Carter with two theft-related felony counts and one misdemeanor count of trespassing.
The new misdemeanor charge holds that Carter “did unlawfully attempt to prevent and dissuade Steven Godin Sr. and Laura Godin, a victim and witness of a crime, from causing a complaint, indictment, information, probation and parole violation to be sought and prosecuted and assisting in the prosecution thereof.”
Laura Godin declined comment on what Carter may have done to “dissuade” the couple.
“All I want is to get back to my life,” she said. “But that guy shouldn’t get away with (taking the Wild Cherry). How dare him?”