This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Dan Hernandez | Longreads | February 28, 2023 | 16 minutes (4,503 words)
When a criminal defense attorney warns you not to view something — in this case, a suspicious VHS tape — it’s probably wise to listen. Dread filled my gut as I slid the tape into the VCR and pressed play. My car had been stolen in October 2022, and after the police recovered it, a lot of stuff belonging to the thief remained inside, including the VHS tape.
At first, I figured it would contain something sentimental. Home movies of a wedding, Christmas, or graduation. It crossed my mind, too, that it might contain something intimate. A sex tape, perhaps, recorded with an ex-lover. Sensual lovemaking between two consenting adults — that would be a relief. I soon started to fear, however, that the tape would contain something heinous, something I couldn’t unsee. The man had desecrated my car; now I worried my mind would be next. But that’s also why I felt obliged to watch it. Call it civic duty, or due diligence. Call it paranoid, rubbernecking voyeurism. It was all of the above.
It took a community effort to reach this point in my investigation. My neighbor lent the VCR. I borrowed the adapter chords from a friend’s coworker. And since I didn’t want to watch the tape alone, my friend Steph volunteered to join. Others had declined, some squeamishly, some flat out saying, “No fucking way!”
I told myself if anything disturbing showed up on the tape, I’d stop it immediately, though I knew that just to see a face on either side of a brutal act would haunt me for I don’t know how long, and you can’t mentally prepare for something like that. Steph has a fun, laid-back energy I can count on in every occasion, but even she said, “I’m scared!” as the VCR hummed to life, its plastic gears turned, and “PLAY” appeared in the corner of the television screen.
“Remember how as a kid, when you rented a movie you’d feel all giddy right before it started?” I said. “This is the opposite of that feeling.”
About the lawyer, the one who’d warned against viewing the tape. He’s a friend. I’d invited him over to watch basketball, Nuggets-Celtics, when this topic came up.
“Look, if the police wanted to know what was on that tape, they could’ve taken it when they arrested the guy,” he’d said.
I wondered if his antipathy for prosecutors and prisons had biased him against my expressed duty to review the tape. “Check this out,” I said, removing its cardboard sleeve. In between the reels was a handwritten label: Bad Tape.
“Keep that tape away from me! I don’t want anything to do with that tape!” he’d said.
Ultimately, he’s still a criminal defense attorney, and I’m a writer and a journalist. When a mysterious tape comes into my possession in a crime, however petty the offense, I’m going to watch it, and if I find something horrible on it, I’m not going to keep that to myself.
Recently, I had worked with a documentary team investigating a series of violent crimes in Las Vegas, some of which were “thrill killings.” In one case, a man filmed himself shooting a person asleep on the ground in a park. Days later, he filmed himself shooting a person walking their dog at the exact same location. The police gathered surveillance footage and identified him by interviewing people in the neighborhood. But the key evidence was the video content on his phone, which the police claim he recorded to relive his violence.
The tape in my possession didn’t contain anything like that. Watching it led to a different sort of reckoning, but to explain, I have to rewind a bit.
It feels almost disingenuous to say my car was stolen. It was not broken into. No one hotwired it. I was not carjacked at gunpoint. Nor was it stolen through the recent TikTok trend to boost Kias by sticking a USB drive down the throat of the ignition. Nothing so clever or destructive occurred.
I left Las Vegas, where I live, for a work trip to Phoenix. That morning, my father flew into Las Vegas for a weekend trip with his wife and her grandson. They borrowed my car. While out to dinner that evening, my father left it unlocked with the key inside in the parking lot of the Orleans Hotel and Casino, a budget resort west of the Strip.
I was out drinking with colleagues that night and missed a few calls. When I checked my phone, I saw my father had texted with weird punctuation and fragment sentences: “Call me It’s very important. It’s about important.”
It sounded important. I had also missed a call from the police. I got on the phone with my father first and, with a tone of pure shame, he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, son. Your car is gone.”
If you love your parents, and they’re still with you when you reach middle age, you must navigate the occasional senior moment that makes you want to tear out your hair and scream, Dammit, how could you be so irresponsible?!
“It’s okay,” I said. It took incredible restraint not to turn the screws on a man who has not always patiently endured my dumbass mistakes. My wife says I need therapy for how severe my father could be at times, because now I’m the same way — a shouty, reactive jerk when deeply disappointed.
My calm response seemed to make him feel worse, knowing, as I’m sure he did, he would not be so forgiving. “I don’t know how, I just …” he trailed off, desperate to explain. “I have no excuse. I feel horrible.”
“Yeah,” I said, agreeing he had no excuse. But to be fair, my father did pull a key fob from his pocket and press lock before walking away from the vehicle. He just happened to use his key to his SUV back in Denver.
When I shared this news with my wife, she pointed out that our house keys were on the car key fob. We felt helpless to know that the thief could find our address on the documents in the glove compartment, drive over, and let himself in with no more resistance than a couple of barking dogs. We live about 20 minutes away from where the car disappeared. My wife was alone and, feeling unsafe, decided to leave and check into a hotel.
I stayed up that night listening for doorbell camera notifications on my phone. I’m used to receiving video clips of movements outside the house — a neighborhood cat, a tree swaying in the wind, a delivery man dropping off a package. None came, though I hardly slept. And the next morning, my father went to our house and changed the locks.
There’s a saying in South America that kept repeating in my mind: “Don’t give away the papaya.” It means, keep an eye on your shit if you don’t want it to get jacked. Mine was a 2017 Kia Optima hybrid, the first newish car I’d ever owned. My driving life up to that point had been a source of embarrassment. When I was 17, in the late ’90s, at a Catholic school where some students drove sports cars and luxury SUVs, the high school newspaper launched a series called “Hooptie of the Month,” and the columnist named my ’81 Honda coupe the inaugural winner, describing it snarkily as a rat-powered jalopy with cockroaches nested in the vents. It was all beaters, or no car at all, until the Kia, which by contrast made me proud.
This emotional connection to the basic four-door sedan led to anger and grief that it was being mistreated. Like a phantom backseat driver, I imagined the car thief weaving through traffic and wished somehow I could intervene.
I called a cop I know to hear what might happen next. “That’s a crime of opportunity,” he said. “Not the kind of person who takes the car to a chop shop, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s Halloween weekend. Probably someone’s out joyriding. My guess is they’ll abandon it in the next couple weeks. That or we’ll pull guns on them when we run the plates, because they don’t look like the sort of person who drives that type of vehicle.
“If we find it, we’ll give you a call right away,” he added. “Whether it’s three in the morning or whenever, you’ll hear from us.”
This was somewhat reassuring. Somewhat, because profiling car owners based on appearance sounds like a bigger problem than the one it’s meant to address.
For her part, my wife hoped the Kia would not be found. She had encouraged me to sell it and profit on the car shortage to pay off credit card debt, so the potential for a payout from my insurance provider sounded good to her. We began arguing, though, over shared use of her car.
I present these frustrations and inconveniences to survey the initial impact of the crime. It upset me, it led to tension and unease, and it rattled my father’s sense of himself as a fully functioning human being — not a fun way to start a vacation!
The experience also served as an exercise in patience and compassion, which proved important to maintain when the authorities reached out.
Before my father left Las Vegas, he texted me a photo of him and his wife and her grandson toasting beers at the Bellagio. I had told him not to let the incident ruin their trip. That didn’t mean I literally wanted to see selfies of him partying at a casino — which seems petty, I know. The man has bailed me out so many times in my life, it would’ve been indecent to act anything other than sympathetic. He cosigned on my car loan, for example, so I could receive a lower interest rate. And the vehicle was fully insured, more reason than any to move on. I texted him back, “Looks like fun!”
These events also reminded me of a crime that impacted my mother when I was a child, a formative episode in itself.
My mother worked as a bank teller for 36 years at a branch of World Savings and Loan, in Aurora, Colorado, and one day the bank was robbed. This was before ATMs, when bank tellers, most of whom were women, handled all of the cash, and before customer service was done through bullet-resistant plexiglass.
The man arrived on foot. He wore a hat, and according to reports he resembled Tom Selleck. He approached the counter like a typical customer — the bank was otherwise empty — and he pulled out a silver handgun and announced, “Ladies, this is a robbery.”
My mother, though startled, calmly worked with her colleagues to give the man everything he wanted, which in the end included my mother’s car. It was a station wagon — the family car for our family of six. My mother warned, “You don’t want my car. It hasn’t been running well lately.” Which was true. The man laughed and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll get it back.”
Indeed, that evening, the police found my mother’s car at a nearby shopping center, where the robber was assumed to have stashed his actual getaway vehicle. It was one many bank heists pulled by a man the FBI had nicknamed “the Gentleman Bandit” for his distinctly courteous and apologetic demeanor during stickups. He never used his weapon, and he often thanked bank tellers on his way out, leading many, including my mother, to comment afterward on how polite he was.
As a child riveted with mobsters and mafia movies, I was oddly proud of my mother’s poise and impressed by the grace she showed afterward. Her only complaint was that the FBI made a mess of our car in its search for clues.
I don’t recall my parents ever considering whether the Gentleman Bandit robbed banks out of a need for money or simply for the thrill, as in the movie Heat, where “the action is the juice.” I’ve since learned that the man, whose real name was Melvin Dellinger, had studied journalism and apparently explained his nontraditional work schedule to his neighbor by claiming to be writing a book. Now I wonder if he was motivated by monetary need and experience. He traveled well (he was a favored guest at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas) but had a modest middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps, he just had a vendetta against banks. Once, during a robbery, an elderly customer offered Dellinger the money in their wallet, yet he declined to accept it, saying, “I don’t want your money, I want theirs.”
Ultimately, the important thing to my family was that the Gentleman Bandit exercised kindness and restraint toward the innocent people he confronted in the process of targeting wealthy institutions.
The “victimless crime” trope may be simplistic. Having purchased auto insurance in a city with a staggering car theft problem, I know the burden is always transferred onto the consumer, punishing us all. Yet I’m still inclined to assess crimes differently when the impact is largely economic, nonviolent, and pursued more out of need than greed.
Inequality has made all manner of desperate deeds understandable, even when the results are infuriating.
Of course, armed robbery is always considered a violent crime, even when the people threatened at gunpoint walk away complimenting the perpetrator’s etiquette. It’s traumatizing, and my mother may be the exception for having gotten over it fast. Good Catholic that she is, she also felt sorry for Dellinger when he was fatally shot during a final heist attempt in Denver.
Despite his reputation for nonviolence and civility, the Gentleman Bandit was not given much chance to surrender. A police officer working undercover as a bank teller shot him in the chest immediately after announcing himself, when Dellinger turned to face him. By then, he had become the third most-prolific bank robber in FBI history, having attempted 49 heists, more than half of which occurred in Colorado, where he robbed some locations more than once.
A note in Dellinger’s pocket read: “My wife knew nothing about this. Please tell her I’m sorry. Thank you.”
As promised, I got a call from the police after midnight about two weeks after my car disappeared. The voicemail said it could be “recovered” at Ewing Bros. tow yard. I got a ride there not knowing whether the car would be drivable or not. The lot was north of downtown, and its
A short woman in a velour tracksuit said her dog was in her car when she parked it somewhere she wasn’t supposed to. “Where’s my dog now?” she asked. The clerk told her the driver should have dropped it off at the animal shelter and to look there. A tall, skinny man tried to endear himself to a clerk by announcing loudly that he’d once applied for a job there. “We could have been coworkers!” he howled, to no avail.
I wasn’t the only person whose car had been stolen. While I waited for my turn to be taken into the yard to inspect it, another Kia was dragged in with its frontend smashed, shedding shards of twisted metal.
There wasn’t a scratch on mine. Just a coat of desert dust. I got inside and caught a heavy whiff of body odor. There was clothing piled in the backseat — jeans, flannels, sweatpants. I saw loose cigarettes in the cupholder and a bottle of Smoke Blaster spray, which removes tobacco smell from hair, hands, and clothing, ostensibly to hide the habit from disapproving loved ones. On the floor lay a tray of decorated Halloween cookies. I wondered if they had a child with them. There was a box of Cheez-Its, a party-sized bag of Cheetos, and as a healthy alternative, fresh grapes.
The license plate was pulled. I found it stuffed under the front seat. I assumed that’s how they were pulled over and arrested — driving without a license plate in what was revealed to be a stolen vehicle. I found an EBT card, a food stamp card, and the mysterious videotape.
The cardboard sleeve with Scotch branding over a column of rectangles dated it to the ’80s or ’90s. Back then, I used these tapes to record episodes of The Simpsons, and it had been decades since I’d even held a VHS tape. Immediately, I wondered what recording could be so special that the person held onto it for that long, and in these transient circumstances. Before I could find out, I had to pay $250 to get my car out.
The gas tank was empty, but because it’s a hybrid the battery allowed me to drive out. The tow yard was next to the Corridor of Hope, a district of homeless shelters. Two freeways cut the neighborhood off from the Fremont Street tourism area, and even the air was gritty from the pollution. Hundreds of people were camped on the sidewalks. I had met some of them during the annual homeless count, which I covered once for a newspaper. They preferred not to sleep in shelters, they said, but still camped there to access the food banks and other social services. They called the area “The Corridor of Hopelessness.” Passing through put in perspective how lucky I was, not just to have my car back, but in life in general.
I called my friend Kelly to share the news.
“Did they leave the Creedence?” he asked. He’s one of those Big Lebowski quoters.
“The car seems fine, but there’s a bunch of random stuff inside and it smells pretty rank.”
“Probably a vagrant used it as a toilet,” he went on.
“There’s a weird tape,” I interjected. “A videocassette. I have to watch it.” I was already seeking an accomplice. “Maybe the library has a TV-VCR.”
“You sure you want to play that thing in a public library?” Kelly said.
When I got home, I threw away the thief’s clothes. I noticed a pair of children’s sized jeans and a T-shirt for an Army unit that had all the soldiers’ names on the back. I also trashed the cookies and grapes, the unopened junk food I kept. The tape would sit on my mantel for a week while I worked up the will to find a VCR and the nerve to watch it. Noticing the Bad Tape label increased my urgency, but also intensified my dread. Like in The Ring, it felt as if watching the mysterious video would doom me.
After I pressed play, Steph and I waited through several minutes of a blank blue screen and white noise. Fast-forwarding, I saw it continued that way for a while. I pressed stop, fast-forward, play. “Bad Tape” was just a bad tape, until, halfway through the reel, a recognizable recording appeared — an ad for Crisco. Then we saw Angela Lansbury. “Is it Murder She Wrote?” I asked. Steph was dying with laughter. It was indeed a teaser for the novelist detective show. The commercials ended and a scene from a soap opera began: A young pregnant woman discussing plans to give up her baby for adoption. The next one showed a boy discussing his father’s murder. It was The Young and the Restless.
Through Google, I figured out that the episode aired in 1989.
Why hang onto soap opera reruns for more than three decades? I grasped for other motives or theories the car thief may have had for the tape, because it didn’t make sense. Over the next few days, I watched the rest. There were episodes of One Life to Live, General Hospital, and the Oprah Winfrey Show — an interview with Bill Cosby.
I was reminded of how my mother used to record Days of Our Lives during her workday. Sometimes, I’d watch it with her at night, me passively doing homework while she ironed and folded laundry. Maybe the car thief held onto the tape for similarly nostalgic reasons?
The 1989 commercials included endearing local ads for Vegas institutions like Circus Circus, the Golden Steer, and a casino school for card dealers and croupiers, suggesting that the tape’s owner was a longtime local.
“Are you sad it’s not a meth addict’s sex tape?” my wife teased.
I didn’t feel sad so much as embarrassed that I’d anticipated the most vile content imaginable when reality couldn’t have proven more banal. Two words, “Bad Tape,” had turned me into one of those people who believe that if a person has committed one crime, they’re capable of anything.
The daily bludgeon of political ads declaring violence an ever-present hazard may have gotten to me during the recent election cycle, though I believed myself immune to such fear-mongering. Working as a fixer for a true-crime investigation had certainly elevated my concerns. More than anything, though, the sudden disappearance of my car set off a fit of anxiety and suspicion that was both stronger and more subtle than I realized.
There was another factor I hated to acknowledge as a freelance journalist. The work biases me toward odd and surprising narratives, the more dangerous the potential story, the more powerful its draw. This sensibility can be helpful when finding and exposing wrongdoing. But there are also those occasions when I only catch myself behaving like an aggressive and mercenary cynic.
I thought this little reckoning was the end of my stolen car-bad tape drama. But the district attorney’s office had other plans. They called a couple days after I reviewed the video. “Did you receive our subpoena?” a legal assistant said. It would arrive in the mail that afternoon. The D.A.’s office wanted me to testify against the man charged with stealing my car. “He may take a plea,” the individual explained, “but sometimes these public defenders like to play games and wait and see if the victim shows up.”
I was informed that the man had another stolen vehicle charge just a couple weeks earlier; he was out on bail for that offense when the police arrested him with my car. Later, using a court database, I looked him up and saw no other criminal offenses on his record in Nevada before October 2022. It appeared the guy was having a pretty bad month.
When I told my buddy Kelly about the subpoena, he said, “If someone stole my car, I’d go to court and demand the death penalty!” Kelly lost a truck recently in a hit and run, and he doesn’t have the means that I do to pay tow yard fees and car insurance deductibles. Nor does he have a partner who can lend him their vehicle, or a job he can work from home. So, I get it. (Well, not the death penalty part — I get the attitude.)
But I also understand through friends who were on the other side of these proceedings how a felony conviction can haunt a person for the rest of their life, impairing the ability to find work and housing. I’ve seen that derail addiction recovery as it sabotages hopes and dreams to overcome past mistakes.
A few days before the court hearing, I called the district attorney’s office to say that while I intended to honor the subpoena, I was not a tough-on-crime person, and if I could have it my way, the charges would be dropped. I’d gotten my car back undamaged — no harm, no foul, I figured. However, as I began to ramble on with my righteousness, the legal assistant cut me off.
“Let me make sure you understand how this works,” he said. “You’re not the one pressing charges. We are.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “I just want you to know, I’m not showing up to make sure you throw the book at him or whatever. For what it’s worth, I’d prefer the opposite.”
The legal assistant let me know that if the hearing went on as scheduled, I would have an opportunity beforehand to express these feelings to the prosecutor. I doubted that my opinion mattered. They subpoenaed me to confirm in court that the defendant did not have permission to take my car, even though I’d said that much already to the police. There also seemed to be an element of stagecraft going on by which my appearance would spook the defendant and his attorney into accepting a deal that they had thus far resisted. For the purposes of that negotiation, I had already notified a contact in the public defenders’ office that if pressed to speak in a trial as the victim, I would advocate for leniency. Now, the D.A. knew where I stood as well.
On the night before the court hearing, I called a hotline to check if the case was still on the docket. It was not. I assumed they had reached a plea agreement. However, when I looked it up a few weeks later, on that date it showed the case had been “continued for negotiations on possible dismissal.”
What led to that result? I would hope that for something as minor as a property crime, the victim’s preferences would be secondary to sympathetic or “mitigating” factors, as the attorneys put it, such as duress in the man’s life and that he had a clean record until October, when he apparently decided to steal and live out of cars.
In any case, I was happy to see it moving toward leniency.
My wife pointed out that I had a harder time forgiving my father than the man who actually stole my car. “Well, I don’t know him,” I said. I’m not sure what that suggests about my relationship dynamics, but it can’t be good. For his part, my dad seems humbler and more passive since the incident occurred. We spent time with him and his wife in Denver over the holidays. He did not bring up the car theft, nor did I, but it hung in the air like an object lesson.
At one point, after I borrowed his SUV and refueled it with regular unleaded instead of premium gasoline, he started yelling at me. But he quickly caught himself and muttered something like, “Oh well, nothing to do about it now!”
This was progress. Ever since this all happened, we’re both getting better at letting petty stuff go.
Dan Hernandez is a writer based in Las Vegas. Links to his fiction, essays, and journalism can be found at danhernandez-writer.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands