SALT LAKE CITY — Sixteen years after his car was stolen, a Missouri man tracked it down in Utah. But getting it back hasn't been easy.
Edward Neeley, 48, got the 1969 Camaro when he was 18 years old and lovingly named it Chelsea Pearl.
"It just meant everything to me," he said from his home in Jefferson City. He remembers spending his paychecks on parts. "I just loved cars. I was passionate about fixing this car up."
Then in 1995, someone stole it. With his classic car gone, so was his passion for other cars like it.
Neeley said fate stepped in when his brother urged him to go to a classic car show. That renewed his interest in cars. At home, he found himself researching cars online, in hopes of buying another one to fix up. He searched for the make of his first car, and that's when he found his long lost love. It was listed for sale on KSL Classifieds.
"It was divine intervention," Neeley said. "Definitely divine intervention that I found it 16 years later."
But the car had a new owner, Brent Dockery from Syracuse, who bought it four years ago on eBay from a seller in Las Vegas.
Investigators said when Dockery got the car, he didn't know the vehicle identification number had been switched. When he registered the car in Utah, an officer didn't catch it.
"All the police officer does is verify it's not stolen, and it was not listed stolen by that VIN number," said Lt. Allan Shinney, chief investigator with the Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division. In this case, the record that the Camaro had been stolen was purged, because that's what happens when a file is inactive for six years in that database.
Dockery bought the car for nearly $16,000. Over the years, he added another $10,000 in upgrades, including a new engine and race seats.
"I'm at a large loss. He'll get his vehicle back," Dockery said, referring to Neeley.
Dockery, who restores classic cars, wants the parts he paid for. Coming to a compromise has been challenging for the two men. Investigators said that's a civil matter.
Neeley said he'd agree to let Dockery take his parts, but only if he provides the receipts, which Dockery said he has.
He's anxious to get his car back after all these years. Just thinking about it makes him emotional. "I'm just too passionate about it and cars in general, and I'm just glad to get her back," he said, breaking down.
Investigators said the car was registered in Nevada two years after it was stolen. They will forward their case to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.
Dockery said he hopes they'll catch the man who sold him the car so he can try and recoup his losses. He said people should also be careful when buying a vehicle because there was nothing to indicate his purchase was not legitimate. It had a clean title and bill of sale.
Investigators said those looking to purchase a car made before 1981 should verify its VIN with the Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division or a classic car collector, who can guarantee the vehicle.