The cherry-red 1989 Corvette convertible that Corky Rice has is in cherry condition.
It ought to be. It still has its original new car invoice sticker on its windshield and a mere 67 miles on its odometer.
The shiny two-seater was stolen in 1989 from the new car sales lot at what was then called C & M Chevrolet in San Diego and driven straight to a nearby self-storage facility, where it was locked in a garage-size unit and left there — for 23 years.
The rent on the unit started at $50 a month. Over the decades, it gradually increased until it reached $300 last summer. That's when the renter stopped paying and called his lawyer.
In early September, the attorney contacted San Diego Police Department auto theft Det. Andrew Spear to explain that self-storage operators would soon be cutting off the lock and opening the unit, and would discover the stolen sports car.
Spear said the lawyer gave this account: He said the renter was a recent immigrant from Ireland in 1989 who got mixed up with some men who had somehow leveraged him into stealing the car, or helping them steal it. He had rented the storage locker to stash it.
"The story from the lawyer was that after that, he would periodically get calls from the men checking up on him, asking 'Do you still have the car?'" Spear said. "He was supposedly instructed to continue hanging on to it. If it's true, then he felt threatened and kept paying."
When he hung up the phone, Spear hurried to the storage unit. He found that the facility's operators had already cut open the lock and were preparing to file a lien against the renter, whom they assumed was the car's legal owner. Examining the storage unit's records, Spear discovered that over the 23 years the renter had paid $70,000 for the space.
"We didn't get a search warrant since the guy was being cooperative through his lawyer," Spear said.
Sitting on four flat tires and covered with a layer of dust so thick that the color of its hood was hard to determine, the Corvette otherwise looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Ky. There were no keys to the car so Spear called a tow truck to pull it out of the storage space.
The tow operator used his truck's compressor to re-inflate the Corvette's tires. "They still held air," Spear said. "And it still had that new-car smell on the inside."
Because stolen vehicle databases are purged after five years, Spear checked insurance records to see if the car's VIN number popped up. Sure enough, it had been stolen and C & M's insurance company had long ago reimbursed the dealership for its loss.
Because of the renter's cooperation and the amount of time that had elapsed since the theft, authorities decided not to file charges against him. He has not been identified.