The police treated the theft of my ‘63 Corvette roadster routinely. “The insurance’ll handle it,” a cop told me. But I wasn’t insured for theft because of the high premiums. With more than 120,000 cars stolen in New York annually, I didn’t get any special attention. For days I checked out Brooklyn’s dumping grounds for stolen cars. I posted reward posters and ads in newspapers.
The posters brought a lot of nuisance calls, but then a bus driver named Nick contacted me. He had spotted a red ‘63 roadster outside a garage in a bombed out neighborhood in Bushwick. He also gave me a license plate number. A friend at the National Auto Theft Bureau ran the number through his computer. The car it belonged to was identical to mine except for the last four digits of the VIN, the vehicle identification number.
Terry Berkson with his car shortly after it was recovered. (Photo submitted by Terry Berkson)
The Corvette in the computer was registered to a man I’ll call Higby, who lived not far from the garage where the car had been spotted. For several days I cruised the decrepit neighborhood. I’d park and walk or ride my bike wearing different hats and shirts. One time I heard a chain saw going inside the garage and I pictured a fender being cut off. I wanted to crash the metal door to rescue my car but I had a strong sense that I might not get out in one piece.
Finally, I flagged down a police cruiser and told officer Joe McCormack my story. He rechecked the license in the computer; the Higby car had been registered only three weeks after mine had been stolen. Later McCormack put me in touch with detective Phil Crepeau at the Queens Auto Crime Unit. Crepeau sent to Albany for the history of the VIN on the Higby car. Sure enough it hadn’t been registered for seven years prior to the recent resurrection. There was a good chance that Higby’s VIN had been saved from an old wreck and installed on my car.
Six weeks later I got a call from a used car salesman in New Jersey. He said that a man had brought in a Corvette to sell and that it fit the description in a newspaper reward I had placed. The guy with the Corvette was supposed to come back in the evening to close the deal and the salesman asked me for details so he could check the car out. I gave him several things to look for, among them a quarter inch, star-shaped crack in the windshield – and the new VIN. The salesman said he’d examine the car and call back.
“Wait,” I said. “What’s your name? Where’re you from?”
“Sam Ashkin,” he said. “At Fort Lee Motors.” Then he hung up. Something seemed wrong. I checked with New Jersey Bell and there was no listing for Sam Ashkin or Fort Lee Motors. He probably had my Corvette and was pumping me for information. Now, Ashkin would change the VIN again or maybe even cut up the car.
Discouraged, I called detective Crepeau. He doubted they would change the VIN again, “because the tag and paperwork are hard to get.”
Several months later the police computer showed that the car was now registered to a man I’ll call Livingston who owned a store in the Bronx. I drove there to see if I could spot my car. Short on patience, I entered the store and began to ask about the Corvette. In seconds I was surrounded by six junkyard dog characters led by Livingston. We argued. I wanted to see the car. They wouldn’t let me. There was some finger poking and chest butting and spittle landed on my face. Livingston said that his wasn’t my car, that my posters had caused people to bug him for the reward. “If it’s not my car, why don’t you let me see it?” I asked.
“I don’t have to show you nothin’,” he said.
I left thinking what my next move should be. A lawyer told me that Livingston had no legal obligation to show me the car. When I got through to detective Crepeau he said he would force Livingston to produce the Corvette by threatening to block registration. I didn’t want to wait that long but he warned that we had to proceed with caution. There was still a chance that this wasn’t my car.
Three weeks later, armed with my list of unique features, Crepeau went over the car and found it to be mine. In the background I heard Livingston ranting about the money he’d invested. Over the phone I recognized his voice. He was Sam Ashkin, the New Jersey car salesman. After calling me, he knew for sure the Corvette he had bought from Higby was stolen.
Predictably, many of the unique features I described to Sam Ashkin had been altered or removed. The car had to be held in the pound for three months in case Livingston contested its recovery. Finally, almost a full year after my Corvette had been stolen, I steered it onto the Belt Parkway. I could hear the crisp sound of the mufflers.The smell of the 60s interior filled my head. There was damage to undo and numbers to erase – but we were headed home.
The above story amounts to just the tip of the iceberg. Terry Berkson’s 200-page book, Corvette Odyssey, chronicles his yearlong search for the car. It has received great reviews:
“An excellent book,” says Corvette Fever magazine.
“Highly recommended,” by Library Journal.
“Engaging intrigue on dangerous turf,” says Steve Spence, editor of “Car and Driver.”
To obtain an autographed copy, contact Terry Berkson at 315-858-1045, or TerryBerkson@aol.com, or send the check to 349 Gulf Road, Richfield Springs, N.Y., 13439. The paperback version is $6; the hardcover is $15, plus $3 postage.
Terry Berkson is an author living in Richfield Springs.