March 1, 2004
By Bill McClellan
St Louis Post-Dispatch
Life is always more complicated than it appears, and that was proven to me yet again when somebody sent me an e-mail concerning a recent column about the theft of Stuart Falk's van. Falk has multiple sclerosis, and his van was, and presumably still is, fitted for a person with such a disability. Instead of a driver's seat, there is space for a wheelchair. The accelerator and brake are controlled by hand. There is a lift, activated by a magnet, that provides access for a person in a wheelchair.
Who would steal such a vehicle?
I was hoping that a column about the theft might provide a lead or two. Maybe somebody who knows something would call. That did not happen. Instead, I got an e-mail in which the writer said that Falk had been using stolen license plates. Would you have written this column, the writer asked, had you known that the plates were stolen?
Of course, I would have. In fact, such a twist would have made the story better. The notion that a fellow in a wheelchair was stealing license plates sounded like something from an Elmore Leonard novel. I wondered if it were true.
I thought that maybe it was. There was a part of this story that had baffled me. The cops, too. According to the state, the vehicle information number on the van does not come back to Falk. According to the Department of Revenue, the van belongs to a man in Florissant. I had called him early on, and he told me that he had sold the van to a dealer. The dealer had then sold the van to Falk. And Falk had the title. He also had an insurance policy on the van, but sadly, that policy did not cover theft. But how come the Department of Revenue didn't show Falk as the owner? I had finally concluded that it was just some kind of paperwork glitch, but after getting the e-mail about the plates, I figured that maybe that had something to do with it.
So I went back to see Falk. He lives on a quiet street in south St. Louis. He lives with two women and a couple of dachshunds.
I asked him about the license plates. He seemed embarrassed. He said he didn't steal the plates. He found one lying in a parking lot. This was shortly after he bought the van in 1999. He lived then, as he does now, on Social Security disability, and he had figured he was going to have trouble paying the sales tax of several hundred dollars when he registered the van, but then, like magic or a prayer being answered, there was a license plate lying on the ground. So he put it on the back of his van, and that was that.
What about the yearly stickers? It would be impossible to legally obtain them without registering the vehicle.
The license plate had its 99 sticker, Falk explained, and shortly after he put it on his van, a sticker thief struck. Unable to pull the sticker off, the thief had cut off the corner of the plate. Falk left it like that for the next three years. He said he was never stopped by the police.
I told him that I wished he would have told me all this before. Before I wrote the column, I had told him about the problem with the VIN. You're not listed as the owner, I had said. Instead of telling me the truth, he had shown me the title.
Nobody has called with any leads on your van, I said, but a couple of people have called and said they'd like to make a small contribution if there is any kind of a fund. I don't solicit money, I said, but if I did, I'd be upset that you didn't level with me.
You think now I'm not worthy? he asked.
I felt very small. Falk has handled his disability with almost unbelievable grace. He was once a runner. He loved softball. He graduated from college. He got married. He was going to be a chiropractor. He's 41 years old now, and if he hadn't been hit by this particular fashion of lightning, he'd probably be very successful. He'd have his own house. He'd probably be a father.
He doesn't complain. He carries on.
If anybody knows what happened to that maroon 1992 Chrysler Town and
Country van, let me know. A worthy fellow really misses it.
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