Metro-East News

Collinsville man who restored Wild Cherry agrees to plea deal. And he gets to keep van.

The Wild Cherry van plea agreement is much like the Wild Cherry van story: Colorful and complicated.

Chris Carter, 40, of Collinsville, pleaded “no contest” on Wednesday in Los Angeles County Court to one felony count of driving or taking a vehicle without consent. The charge stemmed from his 2017 discovery of a classic 1970s van in the California desert that he hauled back to Illinois and restored.

Under the plea agreement, Carter’s sentencing is being delayed, and if he stays out of legal trouble for two years, the case could be dismissed.

Carter also was ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution to the van’s owners, Laura and Steven Godin, and nearly $1,000 to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for towing and storage fees on the impounded van, which is now little more than a striped hull.

Carter received no prison time beyond the 23 days he served in the Madison County Jail after his arrest last fall, and he gets to keep the 1975 Chevy G-10 van known as the “Wild Cherry,” which appeared briefly in the 1979 hot-rod movie, “Van Nuys Blvd.”

“We definitely see (the plea agreement) as a victory,” said Nigel Villanueva, Carter’s lead criminal attorney in California. ”I think it was a very fair settlement. I thought the D.A.’s office was very fair and reasonable.”

Carter attended the preliminary hearing on Wednesday at Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster, California. He didn’t respond to a request for comment through his attorney.

Chris polishing.jpg
Chris Carter polishes the restored Wild Cherry van while talking to his old friend, James Langenstein, just before leaving on the Wild Cherry Van Run to California on Sept. 15, 2018. Teri Maddox

Also at the hearing was Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective Sean Maloney, who investigated the Wild Cherry case and even traveled to Madison County to extradite Carter to California.

“The case settled,” Maloney said after the hearing. “Chris pleaded ‘no contest,’ which is the same as guilty, to taking or driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent. He has to pay $5,000 in restitution to the victim, and under the disposition, he gets the van. It’s destroyed, but I’m sure he’ll put it back together.”

The van got its nickname in the 1970s because of its shiny-red paint and the words “Wild Cherry” in fancy gold lettering across the sides. Carter spent months restoring it, but after he was arrested, the van mysteriously turned up along a California road, stripped and painted black.

Former van owner ‘not happy’

The Godins, who live in Burbank, California, didn’t attend Carter’s preliminary hearing.

“I’m not happy about it,” said Laura Godin, 55, speaking of the plea agreement. “It’s never been about the money. I wanted the van back the way it was where it was.”

The Wild Cherry had been parked for decades on 20 acres of mountainous desert property the Godins own near Lancaster. It was rusted, smashed by a fallen tree and singed by a wildfire, but Laura Godin said it had sentimental value and that they hoped to restore it someday. Her husband bought the van in 1980.

Laura and Steven.jpg
Laura and Steven Godin had the Wild Cherry van parked along a dirt road on their mountainous desert property near Lancaster, California, for decades. Steven bought it in 1980. Provided

Carter has maintained 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. He restored it with help from Facebook friends and GoFundMe contributors from all over the country.

Laura Godin filed a police report last summer, launching an investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and leading to Carter’s arrest on Oct. 3, 2018, outside the Madison County Courthouse.

“I was minding my own business until this creep came along,” Laura Godin said Thursday. “This guy is a con man. He’s conniving. He’s a thief. He’s pulled the wool over a lot of people’s eyes, and he could get away with it. He did get away with it. ... How can somebody go on somebody else’s property and take their van?”

Van with tree
Chris Carter first became interested in the Wild Cherry van when he saw this photo, taken by a California man walking a dog, which made the rounds on Facebook in 2016. Provided Provided

Laura Godin said she learned early Wednesday that the Los Angeles district’s attorney’s office was planning to offer Carter a plea deal and allow him to keep the van, and that she didn’t fight the “lowball offer” because of the toll the case had taken on her and her family in the past nine months.

“From the beginning, my health has not been good,” she said. “And adding the stress of this case has made my health worse.”

Godin said she hopes charges are filed by authorities in Florida, where Carter obtained a title for the van without proof of ownership; and in Illinois, where a second title was issued based on information from the Florida title.

Carter ends civil lawsuit

Carter filed a motion on Monday to dismiss a civil lawsuit he had filed against the Godins in Los Angeles Superior Court in October. He had asked a judge to declare that he owned 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,” the complaint stated.

The district attorney’s office originally filed three charges against Carter, including two felony counts of driving or taking a vehicle without consent and one misdemeanor count of trespass by driving on private property. It sought a maximum sentence of four years and two months in prison for convictions on all three.

A misdemeanor charge of dissuading a witness from prosecuting a crime was added later.

Chris Carter mug.jpg
Madison County Sheriff’s Department released this booking photo for Chris Carter, then 39, of Collinsville, when was arrested Oct. 3 on charges of stealing the Wild Cherry van. Provided

As part of Wednesday’s plea agreement, the district attorney’s office accepted Carter’s plea of “no contest” to one of the felony counts of driving or taking a vehicle without consent and dropped the other three charges, spokesman Ricardo Santiago said.

“Sentencing was continued for a year, and in that year, (Carter is) expected to pay the civilian victims $5,000 as restitution and the L.A. County sheriff $965 for towing fees and storage costs,” he said. “He also is expected to not have any new arrests in all 50 states. If he can do that, then next year, the charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor.”

“Then (Carter) will be placed on summary probation for another year, and if he doesn’t have any new arrests, there’s a possibility he can withdraw his plea, and the case would be dismissed,” Santiago said.

Van may be restored again

Carter formerly worked at a Gillespie body shop. In February of 2017, he told the BND he became interested in the Wild Cherry after seeing a photo on Facebook and that he was bothered by its dilapidated condition. He spent a year doing research before pinpointing its location on Google Maps and driving to California to “rescue” it.

During the restoration, people across the country contributed $5,733 to a GoFundMe campaign to help Carter with expenses. Others donated parts or bought T-shirts.

The Wild Cherry Facebook page had more than 5,000 likes at one time, but it’s no longer operational. Neither is the Facebook page created for a Wild Cherry Van Run in September, when Carter led a caravan of vintage vans from Maryville to Los Angeles and cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Movie screen shot
This screen shot from the 1979 hot-rod movie “Van Nuys Blvd.” shows a Chevy G-10 van, known as the “Wild Cherry,” cruising the strip in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County. Provided

On Wednesday, Villanueva described Carter as “exuberant” after the preliminary hearing.

“If he remains arrest-free, he will have no criminal conviction, and he’ll have the Wild Cherry,” Villaneueva said. “It is his car now, and it will be forever. It will be traveling down Van Nuys Boulevard tomorrow morning (on a trailer), and I think the restoration process will begin.”

Villaneueva declined to comment on whether Carter has the parts that were removed from the van before it was left stripped and painted black along the California road.

The Wild Cherry van was impounded by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Oct. 23, 2018, when it was found along a California road, stripped and painted black. Detective Sean Maloney

In December of 2017, Carter applied for a trademark on the words “wild cherry” from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The application is still being processed, an agency spokesman said Thursday.

A trademark 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.

Laura Godin said she looked into ways to keep Carter from getting a trademark, but it seemed like an uphill battle.

“He’s gotten away with (taking the van),” she said. “That’s the bottom line. It’s not fair, but as you get older, you learn that life isn’t always fair.”

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Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.