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Posted on Sun, Nov. 08, 2009
A challenge to find the Challenger of youth

By David Wren
[email protected]

Buddy Whittington's search for the 1971 Dodge Challenger that was stolen from his grandfather nearly 28 years ago came to an end last week.

But the Surfside Beach resident's reunion with the rare muscle car has raised questions about the national network of collectors who think nothing of spending six figures for the car of their dreams - and the lengths some people will go to sell them that car.

It's a world where documents can be falsified, car titles muddied, original parts switched for fakes and the car you think you're getting isn't really the one you get.
"I don't want to say it happens a lot, but it happens," said Deane Fehrman of Golden, Colo., a classic car expert and nationally recognized automobile appraiser. When the economy was booming, "people were paying outrageous prices for those cars."

While the Dodge Challenger finally is back where it belongs, law enforcement officials say the mystery surrounding the car's fortunes for more than a quarter-century probably never will be solved.

The FBI found Whittington's car last year in a garage in Lincoln, Neb., putting an end to a decadelong investigation by Whittington and the bureau in which the Challenger was tracked through a series of buyers stretching from the East Coast to the Midwest. The FBI eventually seized the car, and the U.S. Marshals Service helped escort the Challenger - with an estimated value topping $100,000 - out of Nebraska and back to its rightful owner.

Whittington said he was thrilled when the car was delivered to his home last week. He still has Polaroid photos - some of them starting to fade - of him proudly standing next to the car as a child. And he remembers talking his father into letting him drive the car to high school despite its top speed of 166 mph.

"I wound up getting a speeding ticket," Whittington said. "My dad wanted to sell it after that, but nobody would buy it because it uses so much gas."
Along with the memories that resurfaced last week, however, was a gut feeling that the Challenger had played a role in some type of car collector's conspiracy.
"The car has been robbed of some of its parts," Whittington said. "The hood has been changed. It used to have a vinyl top, but now it's a hardtop. You can tell it's been painted, the headlights have been switched and some of the chrome doesn't match up."

Even more perplexing, he said, was the metal plate stamped with a series of numeric codes - known as a fender tag - that had been attached to the car inside the engine bay.
Similar to an automobile's vehicle identification number, or VIN, the numerals on a fender tag detail every part and option specific to the car on which it is attached - from the type of engine and transmission that were installed to the location of the factory that built it and even whether the car has a locking gas cap.
The VIN proved Whittington's Challenger was the same one his grandfather had purchased decades ago. But someone had switched the fender tag to make it appear as if the alterations the car had undergone since it was stolen were original.

One of eight made
Whittington's grandfather, the late E.K. Whittington Sr., bought the Challenger new in 1970 from the old Clark Motors dealership that was located on what is now Mr. Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach. A special-order car, the Challenger had a 440 cubic inch six-pack engine with a shaker hood and top-of-the-line options. Whittington still has some of the canceled checks his grandfather wrote while making the $85 monthly payments on the car, a custom model that was one of only eight that Dodge ever produced.
"My grandfather was 66 years old at the time, and he had just retired from the railroad," Whittington said. "He had always been a car enthusiast, and [Clark Motors] talked him into getting that car."

The Challenger's thirst for fuel - the car averages six miles per gallon or less, depending on the speed it's driven - was tough to bear during the Nixon-era oil crisis, and the car simply became too expensive to operate when a second energy crisis hit in 1979. The car, with just 41,000 miles on its odometer, eventually was put into storage in a Conway warehouse.
It was stolen from that warehouse on New Year's Day in 1982. The thieves were never caught and, since the car had been placed in storage, the insurance policy had been allowed to lapse so there was no coverage for the loss.

"We heard all kinds of stories back then, that someone was using it as a drag racing car or it had been cut up to make a race car," Whittington said. "It was all rumors, though. We never knew for sure what happened to it."

Whittington went about his life for the next 16 years or so, but never completely forgot about the car his grandfather had loved.
"We didn't lose hope that we'd find it, but nobody knew anything about where it could be," he said.

Then, in 1998, Whittington bought his first computer and the possibility of locating the car through the Internet became almost an obsession.
"One day I was online and I came across a car for sale and it was a 1971 Dodge with 41,000 original miles," Whittington said. "I said, 'That's got to be it.'"
Whittington sent an e-mail to the seller, who was located in Wisconsin, and asked for the car's VIN. The response perfectly matched the VIN on his grandfather's car, but the seller said the Internet listing was outdated - the Challenger had already been sold.

Whittington continued to dig and eventually traced the car's chain of possession from a series of buyers dating back to 1992 up to the last known purchasers - Anthony Capcino and Brian Simcox, both of Bensalem, Pa. - who had bought the car for $35,000 from a man in Sterling Heights, Mich. The car had been through at least eight owners by that point, including Jeff Bobst - the Waverly, Iowa, man who built all of the muscle cars used in the "Nash Bridges" television series.

Wanting to document that the car was stolen, Whittington said he asked the Conway Police Department for a copy of the 1982 incident report.
"They couldn't find anything," he said. "They said all of the records had been destroyed [in 1999] by Hurricane Floyd."

Whittington sought help from the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, the State Law Enforcement Division and others, but said he could not generate any interest in his case.
Whittington eventually met with an investigator from the 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office, who put him in touch with the FBI in 2006.

'That famous stolen car'
The FBI's investigation centered on Paul Christopherson, a Lincoln, Neb., man agents believe purchased the Challenger from Capcino and Simcox for about $45,000 on an eBay auction in early 2004, according to court documents used to obtain a seizure warrant for the car.

Christopherson, who is listed as the principal of classic car dealership Mid America Motors, did not respond to The Sun News' request for comments.
Whittington first made contact with Christopherson in 2005, the court documents show, and he secretly recorded several of their telephone conversations that year. The court documents show that during one of those conversations, Christopherson told Whittington to meet him in Iowa with $45,000 and a trailer if he wanted to retrieve his car.
Christopherson also told Whittington during a recorded conversation that he should not contact the police because something might happen to the car.
"It could come up missing or damaged or just plain missing," Christopherson told Whittington.

Christopherson also told Whittington that he had connections with muscle car magazine publishers who could boost the Challenger's value if he was willing to cooperate.
"After I get that thing put in a magazine, after all that's done and I get that story published, that car is going to be worth 175 [thousand dollars]," Christopherson said. "Because that's going to be that famous stolen car. Any novelty to these cars just really adds up."

In another conversation, Whittington questions whether Christopherson will rob him if he shows up with $45,000 to buy back his car. Christopherson tells Whittington to call Galen Govier, a noted expert on Dodge muscle cars, as a reference.
"You can call Galen Govier or I can call Galen and have him call you and you can ask him, 'Can I trust Paul or is he going to put a gun to my head for $40,000,'" Christopherson said in the recorded telephone conversation.
Govier, who lives in Prairie Du Chien, Wis., did not respond to The Sun News' request for comments.
Whittington said he tried to contact Govier in 2005 but could not get past his secretary.
"His secretary told me Govier charges $75 an hour for consultations," Whittington said. "I gave her my credit card number and told her she could charge me for two hours, but I just needed 10 minutes of his time."
The secretary promised that Govier would call back, but Whittington said the call never came.

The FBI, however, did interview Govier on Jan. 24, 2008, according to the court documents. During that interview, Govier told an agent that he knew Christopherson had owned the car since 2004.
"Govier recalled having a telephone conversation with Christopherson about the Challenger, and produced an invoice documenting that Govier charged Christopherson a 12-minute consultation fee for their conversation, which took place on Feb. 25, 2004, at 3:30 p.m.," the court documents state.
Three weeks later, the FBI interviewed Christopherson, who denied ever owning or possessing the Challenger.
Christopherson told the FBI that Whittington was harassing him about the car, so he made up the story about owning the car and his offer to sell it back.
The investigation dragged on for months until the FBI learned that the car was being stored in a garage belonging to Dennis Smith, a Lincoln, Neb., man who had been doing business with Christopherson for years. Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

On Nov. 7, 2008, federal Judge Thomas Rogers - based on evidence gathered by the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stan Ragsdale - signed a seizure warrant for the car and the FBI retrieved the Challenger from Smith's garage a week later. The car was impounded for nearly a year while its true ownership was established and to give Smith and others an opportunity to dispute the seizure. At 4 p.m. on Nov. 1, the car was delivered to Whittington's home in The Lakes subdivision.
In the nearly 28 years since the Challenger had been stolen, the odometer shows it had been driven less than 1,000 miles.

New tags and old tags
It was the FBI's interview with Govier last year that sparked Whittington's suspicion there might be an organized effort to hide the true ownership of stolen muscle cars.
Govier operates a business called Galen's Tag Service LLC, which reproduces rusty or missing fender tags for Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler products made between 1962 and 1974. Govier charges between $110 and $165 for that service, according to his Web site.

Govier told the FBI that in 1998 that he made a fender tag for the Challenger that had been stolen from Whittington's grandfather. Govier said he made the fender tag for a man in Elkton, Minn., who owned the car at that time.
There is no way to know whether the Govier-produced fender tag is the same one that is on Whittington's car today.
Whittington said he is not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but that it would be easy to alter a car's appearance and then switch the fender tag to make it appear as if no changes had been made.

Linda Keene, the Myrtle Beach FBI agent who led the investigation, said there is no indication Govier did anything wrong.
She said the car has been missing for so long that it is impossible to tell who might have switched out parts, gotten rid of the vinyl top or changed the tag.
"I'm not sure we could ever determine that due to the amount of time that has passed and the number of people who have possessed the car," Keene said, adding that the statute of limitations has expired for the original theft. "Our investigation is pretty much over at this point."

Fehrman, the classic car expert, said the most likely purpose in switching one fender tag for another is to "camouflage the car, or help disguise it" if the automobile was stolen.
He said Govier has an impeccable reputation and any fender tag he produces is legitimate.
"If he certifies a car, that's as good as it gets other than having God come down and certify it," Fehrman said. Govier's certifications and fender tags are so reliable, Fehrman said, that classic car enthusiasts generally believe that "if he says it, that's the way it is. It's a good thing he's an honest person."
Still, Whittington said he wonders whether somewhere along the line someone produced a bogus fender tag to prevent his stolen car from being identified. He said fender tags also could be falsified as part of an effort to turn a common vehicle - for instance, a 1971 Dodge Challenger with a 383-cubic inch engine - into a rare, high-performance model like the one he owns.

"You could switch some of the parts and make a $25,000 car look like a $125,000 car," he said.
Fehrman said there is a growing market for cars that are rebuilt to look like expensive originals - called "clone cars" - because many people cannot afford the rare classics.
"People will say, 'If I can't have the real thing, then I'll just get a clone,'" he said. "Sometimes, those clones get passed off as the real thing."
Fehrman said it is likely Whittington can restore his Challenger to nearly its full value by replacing the stolen parts.
"It won't be what it was, but if he can put the legitimate parts back he would have what we call a restored car," Fehrman said. "And when you have a car that rare, a restored one can be nearly as valuable as the original."

Whittington said he hopes to restore the car as close as possible to its original condition but the value is secondary.
"I didn't spend the last 10 years searching for this car because of the money," he said. "I did it because of what the car means to me."
 

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talk about perseverance, and that SOB in nebraska and his partner that hid the car
should be charged with auto theft, i do know that galen govier is a highly respected
member of the mopar community and has been around forever but the FBI should definitely investigate this to its fullest.
if he made that false fender tag with his reputation for researching cars then its possible that he has done it on other occasions also and this GOD is a man that makes mistakes just like everyone else..

with any luck i may get to see that car on one of my trips to myrtle beach
 

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Very scary story. I take it there is no statute of limitations on a car theft, which is good to know. Wow, one of eight, no wonder this dude was so obsessed. I'm sure he will restore it to it's original glory and keep it heavily insured in a secret location. I'm very happy for him about the outcome and kudos to the FBI for their help.

Jack
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I take it there is no statute of limitations on a car theft, which is good to know.
The statute of limitations was up, so no one can be charged for stealing it - "... Keene said, adding that the statute of limitations has expired for the original theft" - but I guess it doesn't change the fact the he was still the legal owner.

What an amazing story huh?
 

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my problem is those guys in nebraska knowingly hid the car from its rightful owner
and there should be something they could be charged with, how about receiving stolen property?
 

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you would think that somebody would be responsible for this and be charged with theft.


Just glad to see that the guy got his car back after all these years though. I would have given up for sure.
 

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What awesome story! Im glad to see the rightful owner got his car back!

Ive got an idea, you know what it would mak Chrysler look like if they were to help him obtain the original parts?

LIke a GOD to me.

After all this car is only 1 of 8 built.
 
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