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Teen's dream tarnished by stolen car, broken trust

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


The paint on Justin Klier's '72 Chevy Malibu is dull and dirty white. The interior is black and frayed. The engine is hard to start. The car is twice as old as Justin and by all rights has earned a parking space in the junkyard.

But none of these facts has mattered to Justin. He is 17 and prone, like all kids his age, to dreaming.

He was going to learn how to be a mechanic by working on this car. He was going to restore the Malibu to its sporty good looks.

So Justin installed a new flywheel and starter, a front-end suspension kit, a rear axle, new parts for the exhaust system and a new hood. He spent $1,000 to get rid of the rust and installed a new stereo so he could play his heavy metal CDs.

Last Sunday, Justin woke to find the Malibu gone from the driveway of his home in Pinellas Park. He called the police. Justin said he was told that they might come across the Malibu only if an officer had a reason to do a plate check on a car he saw. About 160 cars get stolen every year in Pinellas Park. The cops have many other things to do.

Justin fought to find a way to accept what had happened. He tried to play the stoic. Justin is not a big talker. "I just figured," he said flatly the other day, "I would never see it again."

So the phone call was the last thing Justin imagined. It came early Tuesday morning. The car had been found in an alley off 44th Street S in St. Petersburg.

Worse things are done to stolen cars. Sometimes they are trashed beyond repair or set on fire. But worse is a relative term. If you have poured every nickel you have into the car, if you have spilled your sweat and skinned your knuckles on it, the damage looks different. "Hideous" was how Justin described it.

The tires and rims were gone. The steering column was torn open and a gaggle of wires dangled from the dashboard. The stereo was history. So were his CDs and his tools. The carburetor, air filter and battery were pulled from the engine. A hole had been ripped in the trunk.

Even the plastic covers for the door locks were gone. So were the sideview mirrors. "I had a lot of change in there," Justin said. "They took the change but left the pennies."

Even with all that damage, the car was fixable. Or so Justin figured. He worked on the Chevy for a few of days, just glad to have it back in his driveway.

Came Saturday, and Justin tried to start the Chevy. He stuck his head under the hood. The news couldn't have been worse. The thief had cracked the engine block. The engine was a total loss.

Now Justin needs a car to get around. He has to find a way to pay for it. The dreams of restoring the Chevy have been put on hold. The engine block alone will cost what for him is a small fortune, a steep number on his part-time pay from a job at Eckerd's. He still owes his mother what he borrowed when he bought the car a year ago.

The theft of his car shocked Justin, the way the first brush with the real world tends to do to a kid. He was so trusting before. He'd even leave the Malibu parked with the windows open when he stopped at the mall or Dunkin' Donuts. No more.

The thing he wants most -- other than another car to get around in -- is a garage where he can work on the Malibu in private. For he believes the thief was watching him work on it in the front yard before deciding to strike. "It's pretty creepy, if you ask me," Justin said.

He has long had a plan to paint the Malibu black with blue stripes when the restoration is finished. Black and blue. They're the color of a bruise -- fitting under the circumstances, because getting his car stolen was a bruising experience for Justin.

But the dream remains. The Malibu is still in his driveway. Justin can't bear to part with it -- or the dream that had him bending over an engine, a wrench in his hand, working his way into manhood.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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