Jardine: '56 Ford taken in 1972 at last returned to owner

Here's an auto theft story of which Modesto can actually be proud:

One late afternoon in July 1972, Harold Voelker walked out of his Los Angeles workplace expecting to climb into his 1956 Ford F-100 pickup and head for home.

Just one problem: Someone had stolen his beloved truck.

He filed a police report and got a call from authorities three weeks later.

"We found your truck," the officer told him.

But when he went to get it, they showed him a 1954 Ford that clearly wasn't his '56 model.

"(Thieves had) switched the license plates," Voelker said.

In the 38 years since, Voelker occasionally pondered the fate of his Ford, which he never expected to see again.

He could quit wondering after receiving a call last week from California Highway Patrolman Greg Bennett in Modesto.

"I told him who I was and said I wanted to talk about stolen vehicles," Bennett said. "He said, 'I don't know anything about stolen vehicles.' But then you he could hear the little bells going off inside his head. He said, 'You mean a 1956 Ford stolen in 1972?' He knew immediately what it was and when it was stolen."

Better yet, Voelker proved he owns the truck. He still has the original pink slip from when he purchased it in 1967.

Tuesday, thanks to Bennett and an honest pair of Modesto residents, he got it back.

"You don't know how excited I've been the last week," said Voelker, who drove up to Modesto from Southern California with his wife, Valerie.

Of course, whenever there's a theft, there's a victim. In this case, there might be many along the way.

Certainly, Voelker became one in 1972. Add to the list the couple who surrendered the Ford. A Modesto woman was given the truck by her father in Texas, who had owned it for 11 years. Apparently, Texas officials never closely checked the vehicle identification number, which are to vehicles what DNA is to humans.

The truck had Texas tags in the window, and the woman's father no doubt thought he'd bought a truck legally when he purchased it in 1999, Bennett said.

The VIN on the pickup door had been covered or replaced by a newer one. When the Modesto couple took the pickup to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Modesto two weeks ago to license and register it, a DMV official noticed the suspicious VIN number and sent them to the CHP office in Salida for a closer look.

Bennett knows where to locate the VIN in different places on a vehicle. When he found the number on the Ford's chassis, it didn't match those in the cab. He then searched the vehicle registration database and found Voelker as the last registered owner of the 1956 Ford F-100 pickup reported missing in 1972.

Since then, "I found three owners," Bennett said. "There's a window of 23 years where I don't know where it was."

He's solved many of these thefts before, but never one that had been stolen so long ago.

"The last (longest) was about 25 years," Bennett said. "It doesn't happen very often, but it can happen."

While Bennett was thrilled to return the pickup to Voelker — its rightful owner — he also feels for the couple who gave up a truck that had been in their family for 11 years.

"They're not happy," he said. "They're frustrated, which I can understand. Somebody's overjoyed. On the other hand, somebody's upset, and rightfully so."

It doesn't matter, he said. The pickup belongs to Voelker.

As for its condition, it was pale yellow when it was stolen. Now it's white.

It got a new engine.

"It had a Y-block 292 (cubic-inch) V-8," Voelker said. "Now, it looks like a Mustang 282."

It had stainless steel hubcaps. Now it has alloy wheels.

"Those are coming off," Valerie Voelker said.

Tuesday afternoon, with his wife following in their RV, Harold Voelker headed down Highway 99 behind the wheel of the Ford he loved and once lost.

They have some serious catching up to do.

And Modesto, which takes a beating because so many cars are stolen here, can feel good about reuniting an owner and his stolen pickup 38 years after the fact.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.