Wild Cherry van restorer accused of stealing vehicle that made him famous

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Was the Wild Cherry van illegally taken from this spot in California? Apparently, that will be for a court to decide. | Facebook photo
Was the Wild Cherry van illegally taken from this spot in California? Apparently, that will be for a court to decide. | Facebook photo

An Illinois man who gained some fame in the car world for restoring the Wild Cherry van that appeared in a 1970s B-movie has been charged with stealing the very vehicle that made him famous.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported 39-year-old Chris Carter was arrested at the Madison County Courthouse during his divorce hearing. He was charged with two felony counts of taking a vehicle without consent and misdemeanor trespassing by driving on private property.

The issue at hand is how Carter came to be in possession of the Wild Cherry van that appeared in the 1979 film Van Nuys Blvd. He said he first saw the van in a photo two years ago. The vehicle was sitting in a field, had a tree on top of it and, at some point, was singed by a wildfire.

“After I saw the picture, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” he told the News-Democrat in February. “To see that van abandoned with a tree on it, and to know its former glory, how nice that it looked, how it was in a movie … I knew I had to do something.”

It took a year, but the former body shop employee eventually figured out where the van was located near Lancaster, California by using Google Maps. He and a friend drove 1,900 miles and asked around about it. Carter said locals told him the van was “abandoned” and one opened a gate to the dirt road that led to the van.

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Carter and his friend loaded the van on a trailer and drove off.

Carter put a lot of work into Wild Cherry. | Facebook photo
Carter put a lot of work into Wild Cherry. | Facebook photo

“We didn’t know it was missing,” Laura Godin, who co-owns the property where the van was left, said. She said her husband, Steven, bought the van in 1980 and the couple had dreams of restoring it.

“(Carter) has no idea the sentimental value that I hold in my heart for that van,” Godin, 54, told the News-Democrat last month. “… It’s been mine since I was 16. He has no idea what it means to me.”

Godin filed a stolen car report but acknowledged that Wild Cherry had not been registered since the early 1990s.

While Godin sought the allegedly stolen van, Carter performed an extensive restoration that he documented on Facebook. Enthusiasts monitored the progress and a GoFundMe for the project raised nearly $6,000.

And despite the ongoing legal matter, a Carter-driven Wild Cherry led a caravan to Los Angeles in September, has spoken about how the restoration story would “make a great movie” and filed a trademark on the words Wild Cherry. Carter sells memorabilia with the van’s name on it.

Carter’s bond was set at $25,000 and he will likely have to travel to California for court proceedings. The current whereabouts of Wild Cherry are unknown.

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“It wasn’t recovered in Collinsville, and it was not something that he drove here,” Capt. Mike Dixon, chief of detectives with Madison County Sheriff’s Department, told the news outlet. “We don’t have the (van).”

Should he be found guilty, Carter could face more than four years in prison.

“He’s going to be locked up for a while,” Wendy Carter, his wife, said Thursday morning. “I was like, dude, can’t you just sign the papers first? I just want out of this. … I just want to go back to my regular life.”

The divorce hearing was postponed until November.

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Carter Nacke is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He began his career at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix, the largest news radio station in Arizona, where he specialized in breaking news and politics. A burgeoning interest in classic cars took him to the Journal in 2018. He's still on the hunt for his dad's old 1969 Camaro.

37 COMMENTS

  1. Personally I feel that since the Van had not been registered since the 1990’s and was abandoned. He (Carter) did attempt to find the owner of the property and was led to believe it was some one else, I can not see any charges that he is charged with as being found guilty. The so called owners (Gooding) are now crying fowl when in fact they most likely had NO intent of doing any thing with the van. AND they will get the van back in fully restored condition, free.
    I think that if they want it they should buy it from Carter for the amount he spent on its restoration and up keep. After all they did not do any thing with it at all. Just my opinion.

    • Fairly obvious I would have thought that he did not feel he was stealing it giving the identity of the van is 100% obvious and is being publicised in the media… not exactly changing colour and hiding it. Certainly looked dumped and yes they should have asked property owners who I guess now have a free restored van.
      Four years jail ??? How about a stern chat about asking first.

    • The "owners" apparent "sentimental" value didn’t mean a thing to him for 20 some years. it was abandoned – even if on his own property. at the worst Carter should have to pay the reasonable value of the vehicle when recovered, which would be about a buck and a quarter, and that would be the end of it. at the least it would show people that they can’t just put a vehicle out in a field and let it rot. take care of it, or lose it.

    • And your "opinion" Robert, shows a liberal view and disregard for law. It also shows a disregard for private property, not owned by you, abandoned or not. Laws cover every aspect of this scenario…listing them for you would make you "cry foul" as you, apparently, are clueless of many things, legal and/or not (my "opinion")……..and I’d better lock down that 1964 Karman Ghia that has been sitting on my land (land looks abandoned….Robert sez GO FOR IT ! )for years in the country while you’re around.

      • Well Aloyisus, I think Robert has a good point. There is a LOT of open land in Calif. and a lot of abandoned vehicles. It could easily be argued that the van had not been registered or driven or maintained for so many years that taking it should not be considered vehicle theft. This argument carries further weight since the van would have had little value. The owners crying about it being gone is total bull. They want a restored van for nothing. They should be charged for polluting the environment considering the oil in the engine and trans. had in all probability leaked out along with the antifreeze.

    • Great sentimental value but sitting outside rotting with a tree on top. I guess these folks can’t believe their good fortune that someone rescued it, restored it and now they’re getting it back without putting a dime in it. He should take it back to the way it was and where it was, dump a tree on it and let them enjoy it the way they left it. No harm no foul.

    • I totally agree! If you had that much sentimental value for the van, why in the world would you leave it out in a field to rust and possibly get burned up? This guy just wants what someone else did all the work for.

    • I agree .being a car geek .Godins claims of how much this van meant to her rings incredibly false in my ears. The cars that I have acquired wrenched on cursed over fixed up . Have never ended up being burned up in a forest fire dented by a tree with its power plant ripped out of it resting on its hubs for more than two decades also sans interior. Shes gacked out of her gourd if she ever thought she would restore it as it would have been better taken care of at least.In all sense of the word this was a gutted rusted burnt hulk left to rot in perpetuity .She saw the publicity saw pics of it and got greedy and thinks she will get a restored vehicle back that yet again she will not take care of .Shes a huckster a loser a scum bag looking for a quicky and as for his wife wendy carter throwing her two cents worth in hell hath no fury like a scorned woman look at what chris took on his van run little blondy to cuddle up with then look at the ugly fat ex wife enuff said lol

    • I agree, the Godin,s are just more lowlife,s going for the money …. It was abandon end of story… hate these sick people who abandon stuff, till there is money involved. then crocodile tears all over the place. B. S. they would never have finished the product… would just rust away……oh. boo hoo. sicko,s

    • I agree with the other Comment: This vehicle was sitting rotting for decades in a field clearly abandoned. Sounds to me like the "owners" are trying to take advantage of the person who rescued this car from its eventual demise and restored it.

    • You have got to be kidding. They stole it. Took it from someone else’s property. Abandoned or not, you would have to be pretty stupid to open a gate and go in and take a vehicle. He goes to jail and the van is returned. Wow, following the law. Call me old school.

    • I was wondering how Carter was able to get a Pink Slip on a car that was reported “Stolen?” Did he file the proper paper work? Go through a waiting process for VIN background check? If the VIN came back clean and had not been registered for decades, I would assume once CA issued the pink slip, the person in the wrong is CA MVD/DMV. Also CA would have wanted back payment for a vehicle not registered for decades.

      • If it had not been registered in over 10 years I believe it falls off the DMV computer. At that point you have to get a headlight alignment certificate and take it to the DMV office for them to inspect the vin plate and they register it in your name. Ive done this…however I did pay the owner for the car before taking it.
        Tough call..Id say since the true owners wanted to restore it they should pay the man for the restoration. Seems fair and pretty straightforward. As it was sitting I would not have given scrap money for it. That was a 300 dollar POS. at best.

    • Isn’t that the way it usually goes. Someone try’s to do the right thing and bring history back to this f upped world, and someone else wants to profit from it. They should talk it out for there both interests at heart. It could make them both money if they thought about it for 2 seconds. Not hard to figure out. Marketing!!

    • Steve Godin was 18 when he cashed in his savings bonds and bought the Wild Cherry from Nick Massalas who was driving the van in the movie it was in. It was 1980 just a year after Van Nyes Blvd. came out and the year before he married his wife Laura, who was 16. How cool is that? For 8 or10 they cruised the Blvd, vacationed at Yosemite, and even lived in the Cherry for about 6 months. They eventually bought a 20 acre plot of land on Sawmill Mountain, moved a house trailer in, and started having children. The Wild Cherry was no longer practical or child seat friendly so they bought another vehicle. They finally built a cabin on their property and some years later there were two wild fires and the second burnt down their home, the tree that eventually fell on it, and the WC van. Being homeless and with children they moved to Burbank instead of rebuilding on the mountain where the damaged Wild Cherry sat until Chris relieved them of it last November. They’re the kind of people I could support with a go fund me campaign. I just read an interview with Nick Massalas. He was contacted by Chis in 2016, the year before he made his 1900 mile trek to get the van off of the Godin property. If you watch Chris’s video “The Story of The Wild Cherry Van” you’ll see that Chris admits that he knew without a doubt that the WC was on private property. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQxsGnr57l0

    • So some of you are saying that if I see something on your property that I don’t think you are taking care of to my standard’s , I can come and take it? Can I have your address please. I’m waiting!!! (some of these responses are just nut’s)

  2. And once again we are reminded of the importance of vehicle titles. I’ve personally passed on some very tempting vehicles due to the "no title", "bill of sale only".

  3. It has so much sentimental value that she didn’t even know it was missing. Lifesaver might have an issue with his trademark application, along with funky white boy.

  4. In my opinion, the folks that claim the van was stolen and having the van sitting rotting away. They did not have too much interest in the van. Now that the van is fully restored–they want the van back. Hmmmm. Sounds fishy to me.

    • Carter is a thief. How can you assume what the intentions were of the actual owner? Maybe the owner, like myself and many others, currently don’t have the means to restore a vehicle they own but would someday like to. Private property, locked gate, not abandon, but stored on owners property. Pretty simple.

      • He was let on the property and a sheriff let him take the van. I don’t think he necessarily “stole” it and that he made a mistake. Also, when was this woman going to restore it, another 30 years later? I don’t think she ever had intentions of restoring it to be honest. And it was “stored” underneath a broken tree, out in the open, the van completely scrapped.

        • Really doesn’t matter when or if she was ever going to restore it. Its hers and she can do whatever she wants with it . Just because he wanted it doesn’t make it right to go onto private property and take it.

  5. The fact that it sat there for so long and was basically salvage/scrap, I don’t believe Godin was going to restore it anytime soon. She should be thanking Chris for taking the time and energy to restore the van and just let him have it. If he hadn’t taken it, it would
    still be sitting there, a piece of history turning into dust. I hope Chris gets to keep the van.

    • Same kind of thing happened to an associate of mine many years ago. He bought and restored a vehicle and once it was all done all of the sudden the police and a rollback showed up at his home and ordered him to surrender the vehicle even though he has a notarized title and bill of sale. They stated it was stolen many years before and it belonged to the original owner. He lost the vehicle and all the time and money he sank into the vehicle with no recourse. The quote original owner saw it at a car show and turned the police on to it. Not sure how this happens but it is scary to think even if you buy a vehicle get a bill of sale and a notarized title from the state that you still might not own your vehicle. He has not bought a used vehicle or done any restoration work since. Very sad!

      • The van was parked under a live tree with a beautiful view. There was a WILDFIRE on the mountain and the tree burned, along with the van being partially scorched and then the burned tree fell on the van. I have a gnome I bought a decade ago in my front yard. It’s faded with the sun now, but we have photos of our kids growing and playing with the gnome and we love it. Even if a fire burned it and a tree fell on it, we’d love it.

        If someone stole the gnome from our front yard, repainted it and called it their own, I’d be pissed and so would you all if it was yours.

        He came onto her private gated property (owned by and taxed paid under her name — NOT HARD TO FIND that info, BTW) and stole something on her property that belonged to her. Either everyone here has a hard time with reading comprehension or there’s a decided lack of morality going on. The van was hers. He stole the van… and yes, it’s likely he’s not a terribly smart fella too, but that still doesn’t make it right.

    • Wow. What a situation we have here for the rest of us car aficionados. First and foremost the fact of establishing theft and private property would be paramount. Was it done maliciously or without intent and unknowingly committing an illegal act. It was stated that these people that had the van on their land were “co-owners” of the land? Of course ignorance of the law is no excuse, but we are not privy to the complete story are we? Person(s) “unlocked a gate” to the land? A sheriff was involved? Towns people were questioned by Carter? He obviously had no intent to steal anything. He is not going to serve any time at all. Could be fined for trespassing.
      Also one would have to consider the laws of abandonment of said vehicle even if it was on private property. Did he legally obtain DMV title and registration for the vehicle? If so I don’t think that would constitute theft. I do not find many people that steal cars go to the DMV and do a title search and pay all the fees?
      This guy honestly thought he was doing the right thing. Throw the book at him is complete nonsense.
      Legal ownership of the van will have to be established. Before and after the subsequent possession of such. Unfortunately I do not think the judge is going to give a hoot of what condition it is in now in making a decision whether it goes back to the original owners etc. if that’s the case.
      My advice is to get a good attorney if you intend to keep the van legally. I think this whole case can be dropped by having all parties involved and agree to have a “parlay” to resolve a mutual financial outcome.

      • As far as the laws of abandonment, I’m pretty sure they don’t allow just anyone to go onto private property and claim a vehicle as their own and take it just because they want it.

  6. Can’t just walk away with someone’s stuff. Plenty of cars sitting in the woods, by houses, etc., that someone has legal ownership of that will never be restored. You the consumer does not get to decide this. While the owner of WC clearly was never going to do anything with it, unfortunately, that is their right. The subjective comments about what was happening to the WC are correct, but the rule of law says that’s their option. Can’t go through a gate, trespass, and haul anything away. Think about it people. What if they hauled a cord of wood away – that would be theft too right? Van is no different.

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