One car's journey from curb to crusher

Each year, thousands of abandoned vehicles in Clark County meet a similar demise

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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photoThe shell of an abandoned car sits at a local junk yard Friday as it is slowly stripped of it valuable parts.

(/The Columbian)

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1,914 abandoned vehicle complaints or cases were received by the city of ­Vancouver in 2011.

The year was 1994.

George W. Bush became governor of Texas, the world watched as O.J. Simpson was chased by police in Southern California and gasoline was selling for less than $1.20 a gallon in Clark County.

Times were good -- certainly better than they are today. Car sales were brisk -- about 9 million new cars sold at retail in the United States, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And for those with a little more income than average, a new Mercedes was an option. With automatic climate control, AM/FM/cassette stereo, power sunroof and a 2.2 liter four-cylinder engine, the C280 Mercedes was a nice ride.

About 15,000 C280s were sold in 1994, said Diedra Wylie, Mercedes-Benz USA spokeswoman. The base model sold for $34,900, about $2,000 more than the median income of a U.S. household, according to the Census Bureau. Eighteen years later, one of those cars ended up in downtown Vancouver across the street from Sunrise Bagels on Harney Street.

"It was sitting there day after day" said Donna Kosterow, owner of the bagel store. She'd come in early to work every day. It was there. She'd leave. It was there. Finally, when a police officer was in the store she mentioned it to him. And shortly thereafter a tow-truck and a police car arrived.

The flashing lights attracted the attention of Columbian Editor Lou Brancaccio, whose office is around the corner. It was a crisp morning on Dec. 1, 2011. Brancaccio stepped outside, snapped a photo and posted it on The Columbian's website. It was likely this C280's first taste of the limelight. And the beginning of the end of this once-proud car.

Abandoned

Although there are no estimates for the number of vehicles abandoned in the United States each year, England had an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 annually between 2000 and 2004. More than 90,000 abandoned cars were towed in Michigan the year after a state system made it possible to track towed cars. The city of Vancouver received 1,914 abandoned vehicle complaints or cases in 2011.

Many abandoned vehicles end up being part of the millions of cars that are recycled in the United States each year. According to the Auto Alliance, an association of 12 vehicle manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz USA, cars are the world's most recycled consumer product. In North America, 95 percent of retired cars are recycled and 85 percent of the materials in those cars are reused, recovered or recycled. Each car yields about one ton of scrap.

What isn't factored into the process is that each car is so much more than a pile of metal and parts. Each one has a story. What was this one's?

According to a Carfax report, the Mercedes' first owner registered the car in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on Feb. 22, 1994. About 25,000 miles later, it changed hands with someone in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Feb. 10, 2003. The car was sold again on May 11, 2010 with about 76,000 miles on the odometer in Palm City, Fla. By February 2011, it had 84,000 miles on it. The owner updated the registration after moving in June 2011, to an address in New Orleans.

Towed

Sometime around October the car was parked in downtown Vancouver, drawing the attention of bagel shop owner Kosterow. She told police it had been sitting there for some time.

When someone reports that a car has been abandoned or in the same spot for a long period of time, police respond, run a check on the license plates and sign a tow slip so the car can be removed by a tow truck, said Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp.

That's exactly what happened with the Mercedes. After the process was complete, Joe Thayer, an employee of Triple J Towing, secured the car and took it to his gravel tow yard near Fort Vancouver High School.

Traced

In a story full of twists and turns, Triple J attempted to reach the car's owner to get him to pick up the car. The company even checked for the owner's name on the Clark County Jail roster, said Triple J manager John Hallman. His name wasn't on the list, so the company sent a letter via certified mail to the owner's address in New Orleans. That letter came back unclaimed.

The whole situation was a bit strange, Hallman said.

On Jan. 18, a local man claiming to be the owner's stepdad called Triple J Towing asking to collect personal items from the car, Hallman said. With no proof of ownership, the man couldn't take anything.

Eventually the owner faxed a copy of his driver's license and gave his stepdad permission to get his personal items.

The Columbian could not locate the owner. Attempts to contact the stepdad were unsuccessful.

Auctioned

The next big day was Feb. 4, 2012. The day of the Triple J Towing auction.

The white Mercedes sat sandwiched in a long row of cars bathed in late winter sunlight in that dusty gravel lot in central Vancouver as a group of people -- some looking for a ride, others to make a profit -- inspected each vehicle to see if it was worth their time or cash. These people would ultimately decide each car's fate.

Like a dog or cat in the pound, some cars would soon find new owners and be nursed back to health.

But it wasn't looking good for the Mercedes, even though it wasn't the worst looking car in the bunch. It appeared to be in decent shape. One exception was the front bumper, which was connected to the rest of the car with clear packaging tape. Its engine still had some life in it -- which was more than a few of the car's counterparts could say.

The auction started just after noon. Buyers and tow company employees (acting as auctioneers) circled the yard looking at one car at a time. A 2008 Baja Motorsports scooter fetched $600 from an independent bidder. The star of the show was an early 2000s Audi. The Mercedes didn't grab a lot of attention from individual bidders. A self-service auto parts store, Pick-n-Pull, entered the winning bid of $550.

Stripped

A few days later, the car made its way to the parts yard near the intersection of 76th Street and Covington Road in the Five Corners area.

When the C280 arrived, crews removed all hazardous waste from it, including gasoline, oil, brake fluid, Freon from the air conditioner and switches containing mercury. Its battery was removed and recycled. It's the same welcome that any car gets before being placed in the retail yard, said Mark Carnesecca, Pick-n-Pull spokesman.

For the next several weeks it was on display as people wandered through the lot looking for used parts.

Many cars in the yard, like this C280, were abandoned on the street and sold at a tow company auction, Carnesecca said. Others were traded in by owners for cash.

Cars usually stay there for 30 to 60 days as buyers salvage their parts. The Mercedes, which saw a bit more success as a parts car than at auction, didn't make it that long.

"It was popular," said Mike Hicks, regional director of Pick-N-Pull. The yard doesn't get a lot of high-end cars, he said. Most are Toyota pickups and Honda sedans.

After being picked of valuable parts, the car left the lot to be scrapped sometime around March 16, Vancouver Pick-n-Pull manager George Allan said.

Crushed

Hicks said after the retail yard, cars go into "full recycling." That means employees will remove copper, aluminum and any parts that can be reconditioned (including engines, alternators and compressors) before the rest of the car gets crushed. It's unclear what exactly would become of what was left of the Mercedes. A large portion of U.S. recycled metals is exported to other countries including China, South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, Canada and India. There it is cast to produce new steel and iron products, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Auto recycling is a $22 billion-per-year industry that employs more than 100,000 people, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association. In 2009, about 14 million cars were recycled in the United States, yielding about 14 million tons of shredded scraps that can be used to produce new steel and cast iron products, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

The Mercedes -- full of life and luxury 18 years ago -- had witnessed adventure from coast to coast. Its end came in a machine resembling a giant wood chipper. All good things must come to an end. Just ask Hicks:

"It comes out in pieces about the size of your fist."