Unsolved crime: Where's my investigation?

Nine months after Derek Hartline's Jeep Grand Cherokee was stolen, he's still angry– at the city and county officials who investigated the theft.

When the Jeep disappeared last September, he called the Charlottesville police to find out where his car was.

The good news: Police had found it. The bad news: It was wrecked and on fire on Stony Point Road.

And nearly a year later, Hartline is frustrated that his $6,000 vehicle could be stolen, wrecked, and burned, with the perpetrator walking away free. And he calls the lack of leads and the way city and county police, county fire and rescue, and the Stony Point Volunteer Fire Department handled his case "quite discouraging."

The school year had just started last fall when Hartline, a first-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary, went to the school in the wee hours of September 4. Because it was so late, he parked in the no parking zone in front of the school. When he emerged at 4am, his car was gone, and he assumed it had been towed.

Hartline walked home and called the police to find out where to retrieve his 1993 Cherokee. A dispatcher told him an officer was on the way, and before he could ask why, relates Hartline, he heard a knock at the door.

Charlottesville City police officer Jake Via asked Hartline if he was okay– and then reported that his car had been in a terrible accident on Stony Point Road and was on fire.

"I was pretty much in shock," Hartline recalls. He called a neighbor and they drove out to the scene of the accident to see, in fact, his Jeep totaled into a tree and engulfed in flames. Albemarle County police were writing an accident report, and he says they told him that Charlottesville police would do the stolen vehicle report.

Because he carried only liability insurance, his insurance company told him the theft and burning of his car was not covered. Even so, he became anxious when, a day and a half after the wreck early Wednesday morning, no one from the city police had contacted him to do a theft report. He called police Chief Tim Longo to complain, and on Friday evening an officer came to make the report.

Hartline is still wondering why it took 62 hours for the city to do a report on the theft. Via says he was told by Albemarle County police to wait until they did their investigation of why the car was on fire.

"The only reason I didn't do it was because the county was going to contact the city," Via recalls. "I think the county probably forgot to call us."

If a car is stolen in Charlottesville, a city police officer is supposed to write a report. Still, says Chief Longo, "I don't believe anything was lost" by the report's delay.

Hartline disagrees. "Within 48 hours is the prime chance to catch whoever did it. Since it took 60 hours for the report to be written, it's a little too late."

The City police officer who went to look at the burnt vehicle, says Hartline, told him he believed the Jeep had been set on fire.

And Albemarle County didn't do a fire investigation on the Jeep, which also chafes Hartline.

"The chief of the fire department on the scene should make an assessment of whether an investigation should be done," says Albemarle fire and rescue assistant chief Bob Lowry.

That would be Ted Armentrout with the Stony Point Volunteer Fire Department. Armentrout did not return The Hook's phone calls.

"When a car is smashed into a tree," says Lowry, "it's hard to make a determination because it's damaged from the accident."

"No one suspected arson that night," says Corporal Glenn Fink with the Albemarle police. "We thought it was the result of the accident. In this particular case, the fuel tank ruptured."

The Jeep Grand Cherokee was valued at $6,000, and Hartline spent that amount to purchase another vehicle, this time with comprehensive insurance. But he's still discouraged about his experience with the different jurisdictions and fire agencies.

"When I needed them, they weren't there, and I didn't get information. Is there a problem with the city and county being able to work together?" he says.

"There was some miscommunication about who does the report," says Longo. "I don't think it fell through the cracks."

Albemarle's Corporal Fink agrees and says the two jurisdictions often work together.

"People don't understand the stress of the job," says Officer Via, nor the demands of paperwork. He doesn't believe the case was bungled and thinks Hartline's complaints may have been "blown out of proportion."

He adds, "It all got worked out."

Hartline doesn't agree with that, either, and says of his experience as a crime victim, "If it hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't have believed it."

And unlike cop shows where crimes are always solved, Derek Hartline's stolen Jeep case was closed October 8, 2002, with no leads and no suspects.