On Wednesday morning, March 1st, I was driving my friends to the airport in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nine of us had come to the city to photograph the festivities of Mardi Gras week, and now it was time for us to part ways. They were heading home and I was ready to drive back to Seattle to return the RV, a 4,000-kilometer drive with 5 days to be there. I needed to drive 800 kilometers a day to make it on time. I didn't go far that day as I was tired and hadn't slept much the days before. But by Thursday I had made it to Wichita Falls, Texas, and on Friday I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Having heard that Albuquerque wasn't exactly the safest city, I decided against sleeping in a Walmart parking lot as I usually do and opted for a motel instead. I woke up around 6:30 the next day. I checked on the RV from my room window, and then gathered my stuff and went down to the lobby to have some breakfast before heading towards Lebanon, Colorado for a short visit, the last destination on my route. At most one hour could have passed between waking up and leaving the motel, but much had happened during that short period of time. I walked around the parking lot and couldn't find my RV.
I must have circled that lot 5 times. "You must have been looking in the wrong place", I was telling myself, before it finally hit me that the RV was stolen. I went numb and could no longer hear or feel anything around me. I walked back to the front desk, panic stricken, and told the manager what had happened. There were no security cameras around the motel. She called the cops immediately. Within 10 minutes a patrol car had arrived. Officers Fitzpatrick and Mares asked me to describe the car, took my statement, gave me a case number, and told me they'd call if they get any news. Their tone of voice wasn't optimistic and it wasn't long before I found out why.
The other woman working the front desk told me that her car had also been stolen from in front of her house the month before. "Car thefts are very common in Albuquerque", she said. After finding out I drove a motorhome, she shook her head and said "It's probably already on its way to Mexico". The border was four and half hours away.
I went back to my room after booking it for another night and just lay in bed, motionless. I started listing the losses in my mind. At least I had my computer bag and hard drive on me, I figured. If it weren't for that, I'm not sure I would have remained sane. Still, all my clothes, cameras, books, photo prints given to me by photographers met along the way, as well as souvenirs collected from the different Lebanons were in the RV, and that was a huge loss to me. As for the car, it was a rental. I spoke to the owner and luckily he wasn't as upset as I figured he'd be. He was insured, but I wasn't.
I spent most of the day in bed and, even when I got hungry and wanted to go out to eat, I started getting paranoid about walking the streets. My computer files were all I had left. Do I leave them in the room? What if someone steals them? Do I take my bag with me? What if someone tries to mug me? I wasn't very rational that day. But I did take a lot of comfort in all the messages I received from friends on facebook offering their support; it really made the ordeal lighter and I felt less alone.
Around 10:30 at night that same day, my telephone rang. It was the owner and he informed me that the RV was found. The cops had called him and informed him that it was now in an impound lot, but no further details were given. It's not exactly the kind of information one could easily fall asleep after. But I couldn't wait for the next day to come so I could get more information.
On Sunday morning at 8:00, I received a call from officer Fitzpatrick. He did confirm that the RV was found, and then he asked me to list all the bags I remember having in the RV before it was stolen. He then gave me an address and asked that I go there as soon as possible; they were waiting for me.
I expected the address to be a police station. But when I arrived I found that it was a gated residential community. I walked into the parking lot and saw that a police car was blocking a pick-up truck. Officer Mares came to greet me. "Where is my RV" I asked. I was thinking that's what I came to see." It's more complicated", the officer told me.
He asked me to look at the bed of the pickup truck and there they were, my camera bags, my coat, my jeans, and one of my suitcases. After listing some of my belongings over the phone, the officer knew that what was in the truck was mine. But he cautioned me that I wasn't allowed to touch or move anything. I was confused; these bags were mine, so why couldn't I take them.
His explanation was straight out of an episode of "Breaking Bad", which was coincidentally also set in Albuquerque. Early in the afternoon the day before, a few residents from the community had seen the pickup truck circling the street around them for some time and then park inside, and they reported the suspicious activity to the police. When the cops came, they found the RV next to the truck. Since it fit the description I had given to them – the license plates had been removed – they knocked on the back door and were greeted with a woman high on drugs.
As it happened, two women had stolen the RV from the motel's parking lot, had also stolen that pickup truck, and drove both of them to the gated community. They took out anything they believed to be valuable from the RV and dumped it in the truck bed. My RV was then on its way to being transformed into a meth lab. When the cops found it, it couldn't be turned on, so they had to call a towing company to take it to the impound lot. All of these events happened in less than 12 hours. And since the pickup truck was stolen property and the owner couldn't be contacted, the police needed a search warrant before releasing my belongings to me. As my friend Tyler Simpson who was with me in New Orleans would joke, this "Breaking Fad".
A few minutes later, a detective joined the two officers at the scene. Detective Ronald Clipp assured me that I would have no problem getting back what I owned as soon as possible. He had left a message for the judge so he could sign the search warrant. Because it was a Sunday, the detective was hoping for the judge to have his warrant-signing iPad on him, a technological advance I wasn't aware of whereby the warrant didn't need to be a physical piece of paper. Unfortunately, the judge didn't have his iPad and I would have to wait until Monday. I left the scene relieved that not all had been lost. But I still wanted to see what condition the RV was in. So I requested an Uber and went on my way.
As I was recounting my story to the Uber driver, he was apologetic about the city being in the state it's in, but then said: "I love Albuquerque though. I've only been mugged once since I've moved here." Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
The impound lot did not allow any photography on site, and the manager, a nasty man in his fifties, told me I had 5 minutes to check the RV and empty my stuff if I ever find any. As he walked me past the gate into the lot, I was met by a wide field filled with RVs, all stolen. I immediately identified mine and it didn't look bad from a distance. As I drew nearer I found that the front tires were flat; still a minor issue. But when I walked into the car, it was one horrible shock. Everything was upside down. The dashboard was removed and loose wires were dangling from it. The cabinets were emptied and debris was all over the floor. One of My suitcases was half-filled and lay open on the couch, as if someone was interrupted while filling it up. I gathered all of what I could find into two suitcases and hurried out. It was painful to watch what had become of my temporary home. I had been living in it for only 5 months but still, I had grown attached to it and it was hard accepting that I had to leave it behind in such a condition. But I had no other choice.
A kit to shoot up heroin
The next morning, Monday, March 6th, I received a phone call from Detective Clipp. He was able to secure the warrant, with the pickup truck having been covered the night before, sealed, and towed to the same lot where the RV was. I met him as fast as I could and we were both joined by CSI Megan Maestas so she could photograph the evidence while the crime scene was being investigated; no one had yet taken a look at the contents of the truck since the arrest.
Detective Clipp was able to confirm that one woman was directly arrested over the theft, an Ashley Leah G., but he couldn't disclose how the other woman, supposedly her mother, was implicated. There was also the possibility that a third male suspect was involved. As the detective and the CSI went over every inch of the truck, much was discovered about the unfortunate life of Ashley.
I was extremely relieved to recover all my cameras and most of my books. One carry-on bag that had the photo prints and the souvenirs collected from the Lebanons was never recovered. A relatively minor loss given the circumstances. Still, I was honestly more enamored by Ashley's life than by what I lost. On the passenger side, we found a large purse. In it were her driver license, photos with her son, and my notebook. The pages I had written on were torn off and she had inventoried every piece of equipment I had, including their serial number, and was trying to get quotes to sell them. She was arrested before she was able to sell anything.
There was also a leather binder I had which held paper documents. These documents, relatively unimportant, were missing, but the binder pouches were filled with needles, tourniquets, and q-tips, the kit to shoot up heroin. A small package containing heroin was found there as well. Ashley was extremely organized. The needles were perfectly lined up next to each other, the inventory of my equipment so methodically written, and strangely, after opening the suitcase that was half-filled in the RV, I found that she had folded each of my t-shirts and underwear into neat squares and lined them up in a row next to each other. She was obviously not a messy person and I kept picturing scenarios about how she could succeed in a corporate job if only she didn't choose a life of crime. Her records showed that this wasn't her first offense.
The last discovery we found in the binder was a journal she had written on March 1st and included with the heroin shooting kit. It turned out that Ashley used to live in a Winnebago, a motorhome like mine, but that she was going to lose it, for unwritten reasons, in 4 days. She had stolen my RV on the same day she lost hers. Despite the awful past days I went through after discovering the theft, I can honestly say that I bear the woman no ill will. Perhaps it's the thought that she lost her home, that she has a young son, and that she might not have been dealt the best hand in life. Hopefully she'll find her way and be rehabilitated in jail.
Now that I had recovered most of what I was had, it was time to leave this city. The RV's owner had found a local repair shop and was handling the matter with them over the phone. There was no need for me to stick around. So I rented a compact car, stacked it with my suitcases, and drove off towards San Francisco where I'd be spending a week with my aunt and cousins before returning to Beirut. Hopefully all the excitement was now behind me, at least for the near future.