The Matter of the Looted License Plates

It had been a pleasant week for Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department. Occasionally — and only occasionally — the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, Edward Paul Lizzard III, sent him on an assignment of merit. In Noonan’s case, ‘assignment of merit’ meant an assignment which actually involved a crime. Heists were best and the more twisted the better. But, alas, most of the assignments were those of a political nature. ‘Political’ in this sense meaning Noonan chased down absurd, conspiratorial fantasies which turned out to be absurd, conspiratorial fantasies which the Commissioner metamorphosed into front line headlines in the local paper which he used to prove to Washington D. C. there was real concern about homeland security on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This translated into requests for more money for his office.

The particular assignment to which Noonan was ordered to investigate, took him to Turtle, North Carolina, where it was alleged — with no basis of fact — nefarious characters were stealing state property for a clandestine operation which would, in the exact words of Commissioner Lizzard, “test the integrity of the operational strength of the Office Homeland Security in all of North Carolina.” The commissioner also eluded to his favorite conspiratorial adversaries — Muslims, anarchists and “disreputable people from Third World countries” — as being the perpetrators of this dastardly enterprise.

And what was the enterprise which required Noonan to drive inland to — again in the commissioner’s words — “investigate this matter personally and quickly?” The answer: alleged theft of North Carolina license plates from Turtle Luxury Junk and Storage.

Harold Salonitah of Turtle Luxury Junk and Storage was less than pleased to see Noonan. “Nothing personal, Captain, but this is not what you would call a major crime.”

“I understand …” Noonan started to say but Salonitah cut him off.

“You know, politics and all. I just mentioned the missing license plates to my wife’s sister-in-law who’s married to the Turtle Commissioner of Homeland Security and ..”

Now Noonan cut Salonitah off. “Been there, done that. It’s been a nice drive let’s just play this one out. Being a trivia nut, I find Salonitah an odd name. Indian, perhaps?”

“Cherokee. It means ‘flying squirrel.’ I was born in upstate New York and met a North Carolina Native, Lumbee, in the Army. She didn’t want to live in Upstate New York, and I don’t blame her. I didn’t want to live in Upstate New York either. She had ties and so here we are.”

“Ties in the junk business?” Noonan said as he looked over the scrap heaps.

Salonitah laughed. “A bit more profitable.” He pointed around at what appeared to be a scrap yard. “This is part of the old railroad terminal that went belly up when planes put trains out of business. My wife’s family bought a large chunk of it. We’ve got plans for a theme park.” When he saw Noonan giving him a skeptical look he quickly added, “Not here. This is a far flung corner of the real estate. We’re using the old warehouse over there,” he pointed to the east, “for long term, luxury storage. Things like State of North Carolina highway equipment, antique cars, campers. In the yard here,” he swung his index finger around in a 180, “we have a contract with the State of North Carolina and some cities for derelict vehicles. Which,” he smiled sadly as he said it, “is why you’re here.”

Noonan chuckled. “And why, exactly, am I here and what does it have to do with license plates.”

Salonitah smiled sardonically. “Short story but complicated. When a vehicle, say a car, is abandoned on the highway or in a city, it gets hauled away. In this part of North Carolina it comes here. If the owner does not claim it within 30 days, it is declared a derelict vehicle. But it is still owned by someone. By that I mean, it is still private property. The State of North Carolina is just holding it until it is bought by someone else. If it cannot be sold because it’s such poor condition, its junked. We do the junking. We are paid by the State of North Carolina to junk the car. At that point we become the owner of the car and the State of North Carolina is out of the picture. We sell what we can and that includes license plates.”

“Is there a market for license plates?” Noonan dug through his pockets for a pen as he opened his notebook.

“A small one. You can buy licenses plates on the internet for about $4 apiece. We sell them in batches. We just stack them over there,” he said as pointed to the side of a shed on the far side of the junkyard gate. “Every once in a blue moon someone comes in and buys them. We’re talking $50 or $60 for a pile of plates, not big bucks.”

“What are license plates used for?”

“All kinds of artsy stuff. Sometimes to decorate a wall or make birdhouses. Or an artist will cut out the individual letters and make name plaques for businesses or put the numbers in a circle for a clock. There are not many uses for license plates and those people who buy them are usually artists.”

“But some of them disappeared?”

“All of them disappeared. I’d say about 100. We haven’t sold any plates in over a year so they were building up.”

“OK, so we’re talking $100 at a dollar a plate. Why aren’t the Turtle Police handling this? I mean, why am I here?”

Salonitah rolled his eyes. “Here’s where it gets complicated. “My wife mentioned the disappearing license plates to her sister-in-law who’s married to the Turtle Commissioner of Homeland Security and suddenly it became a big deal. Like some terrorists are going to put the plates on vehicles and use them for some plot. The Turtle Commissioner for Homeland Security saw headlines and, hey!, that’s why you’re here.”

“And the Turtle Police have been told to stand down,” Noonan mused.

“Happily,” Salonitah said. “They’re not stupid. This isn’t even a reportable crime. It’s a laughable crime. We can’t prove anything was actually stolen. It would cost us more to go back, vehicle by vehicle, and match up VIN Numbers to plates to show how many plates were stolen. Worse, we don’t keep track of which license plates were sold over the years so…”

“I got it,” Noonan said. “But you said it was complicated. I don’t see anything complicated about this, sort of, crime.”

“Yeah,” said Salonitah and then he lowered his voice. “What makes it complicated is three other junk yards in North Carolina had their license plates stolen too. All over the same week.”

* * *

As license plate thefts were hardly events which rose to a level above laughter, Noonan got the names of the other junk yards which had missing plates. All were in rural areas around Kinston, Goldsboro and Vanceboro. A call to the Vehicle Recycling Association of North Carolina elicited low level ha-has as well. Yes, the Association knew of the license plate thefts — or, alleged thefts — simply by word of mouth. It had been an industry joke more than a matter of concern. What it had done was spawn a sting of license plate jokes including the Black Jeep with the license plate BAA BAA, the sheep farmer whose plate read EWE HAUL and the blond who wanted a personalized license plate and when she could not get it, she changed her name to RSW 674. All Noonan could get was the phone numbers of the recycling yards which had suffered the license plate loss. Interestingly, the Vehicle Recycling Association was the North Carolina chapter. No other recycling association in any other state had reported any thefts of license plates. Overall, only four junk yards had reported license plate thefts. Total: about 400 plates but there was no way to get an exact count.

Also interesting, the four recycling yards from where the plates had been stolen had something in common: all were close to the Neuse River. A dull chime clanged in the deepest recesses of Noonan’s mind.

Whenever Noonan had one of his loo-loo cases, he went to his two source of investigative research: history and the newspaper. Kinston was small even by North Carolina standards, about 20,000. The city had been established by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly in 1762 on land that may very have been ‘acquired’ from the Neusiok people of the region. It was name Kingston for King George III in 1762 — probably originally “King’s town.” (That, Noonan mused, probably did not last very long. It didn’t.) After the American Revolution the ‘g’ in the name was dropped. To encourage settlement, city commissioners accepted “subscriptions” for numbered lots within the boundaries of the anticipated city. A forerunner of the Homestead Act, “subscribers” were required to build homes of brick of a certain dimension within three years of the acquisition of the property. If they failed to do so, the property reverted to the city which was incorporated in 1849.

Goldsboro had a slightly more interesting history and a slightly larger population; 35,000. It had been established in 1787 within the newly-established Wayne County. It was originally named Waynesborough and grew into an established community in the 1840s when the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad intersected the New Bern Road. A hotel went up and travelers appeared. As the population expanded, thanks in large part to the railroad, the town was renamed “Goldsborough Junction” in honor of Major Matthew T. Goldsborough, the Assistant Chief Engineer of the railroad line. According to Wikipedia, “local legend has it the Goldsborough supporters put moonshine in the town’s well to encourage people to vote for Goldsborough.” It worked and the town’s name remained the same until Reconstruction.

During the Civil War the Confederates held the city and a bridge crossing the Neuse River. All was somewhat peaceable in the vicinity until December of 1862 when there was pitched battle for the control of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Bridge. It was on the strategic supply route for Confederate troops. Union forces under General John Foster burned the bridge down.

Then he and his troops left.

And the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Bridge was quickly rebuilt.

Goldsborough saw a lull in military action until March of 1865 when General Sherman’s march to Atlanta took the city with 100,000 men. After the Civil War the town’s name was officially changed to Goldsboro. The area became the North Carolina 2nd Congressional District and became known as the “Black Second” because the population had a black majority which elected, in sequence, four black representatives to Congress, three of them after Reconstruction. The city was renamed, so to speak, Goldsboro in 1869, during the Reconstruction.

Vanceboro, population 1,000 on a good day, was originally named Swift Creek but was renamed for — in 1876 — former Confederate military officer Zebulon B. Vance who was both the 37th and 43 Governor of North Carolina, once during the Civil War (1862–1865) and just after Reconstruction (1877 to 1879) and thereafter United States Senator (1879 to 1894). Vance was quite a character, a strong proponent of individual rights and local self-government in a wartime era. He was elected Governor of North Carolina as the nation was tumbling to war and he won the seat running against a secessionist.

In May of 1865, he was arrested by federal troops and spent several months in prison. He was paroled and returned to his law practice in Charlotte where one of his clients was Tom Dula, better known today as “Tom Dooley” from the song. Vance represented Dula pro bono and maintained Dula was innocent long after Dula was hanged on May 1, 1868. To this day the details of the murder remain murky. Vance was formerly pardoned on March 11, 1867, though he had committed no criminal acts. He was re-elected as Governor in 1876 and to the United States Senate in 1879 where he served until his death in 1894. He was a strong proponent of religious toleration and personal freedom and praised Jews at a time and in a place that was notoriously anti-Semitic.

And there was not a shred of a clue in the history of the area as to why anyone would steal license plates. But all thefts had occurred in cities with access to the Neuse River so Noonan dove into the history of the tributary. The Neuse was the longest river which was entirely within the state of North Carolina. It’s 275 miles flowed from the Western foothills to Pamlico Sound. It was named after the local Indians, the Neusiok, and there were two historical notes of interest. During the Civil War, a Confederate ironclad was burned to keep it from falling into Union hands and, in 1970, William Larry Steward II, also known as Blues Singer Billy Stewart, died in a car accident near Smithfield.

In modern times, Noonan read, the Neuse had been subject to rising health, environmental problems as well as shoreline erosion. Municipal and agricultural waste had been and were being indiscriminately dumped into the river and, year by year, restrictions were plaguing the grandfathered disposal villains. The hurricanes which frequented the area had caused inconsistent and random river level risings and there had been a poisonous blossoming of the level of a dinoflagellate, a term Noonan did not recognize. According to Wikipedia, it was a microorganism which “was associated” with “harmful algal blooms” which killed fish. And, oddly, the dinoflagellates had an “adverse health effects in grapes.”

Grapes?

And distant clang went off in the deepest recesses of Noonan’s brain cavity.

* * *

While Noonan was aware there were wineries in North Carolina, he had no idea how many of there were. In fact, there were quite a few. While the North Carolina wine industry was healthy before 1919, it went dry, so to speak, along with the rest of the country. Then, in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, wine making came back with gusto. There was a second sizable spurt in the 21st century where locally brewed beer and wine suddenly became more popular than the generic national brands or imports. Muscadines, the native grapes of North Carolina, seized a spot on the wine connoisseur’s shelf and the popularity of North Carolina wines spread quickly. At that moment, North Carolina was tenth in the United States for grape growing and wine production and was one of the five most visited states for wine enthusiasts with more than 350 vineyards supplying 55 wineries.

Finding newspaper coverage of the wineries was not hard. The problem Noonan faced was culling for relevant wineries. They were scattered all over the state and Noonan postulated which grapes went to which wintery was more a matter of economics than geography. So he concentrated on grape growers. At first glance it was reasonable. After all, the link he had was with the Neuse River and there had to be vineyards along the river route. This was both true but meaningless. First, the link to the Neuse River was only in Noonan’s mind and may not have had anything to do with the theft of 416 abandoned license plates.

Second, there were 275 miles of the Neuse River along with various streams including the Eno, Little, Crabtree, Swift, Contentnea and largest of all, the Trent. The Trent had a drainage basin of 5,630 square miles and there could be and possibly were a lot of vineyards on those 5,630 square miles.

Hopeful he could find a clue, he decided on an oblique research pattern. There were too many square miles to search by geography so he tried an alphabetic approach. He got a list of all the vineyards and wineries and plumbed the names. One stuck out, Cliffs of the Neuse Vineyard and Winery. It was several miles south of Seven Springs, North Carolina, and, predictably, not in the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. While Noonan had never been in the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, its reputation was known statewide. While it was located in relatively flat land, it had cliffs, thus the name, which ran for several hundred feet and rose to about 100 feet above the river. It was a magnet for fishing, boating, canoeing and camping enthusiasts. While it was not large, 892 acres, it was popular.

And it was on the Neuse River.

Back Noonan went to the newspapers. There were the usual articles on the winery. It was new, barely a year old, and was situated on the confluence of a narrow stream which — previously — had been unnamed. But now the vineyard had been established, the stream had been named. Oddly, the name of the stream was the menhaden. Noonan was well aware of the Menhaden, they, like the anchovy, were primarily the food chain link between plankton and larger fish. All the tasty fish ate menhaden and humans ingested menhaden second hand or consumed its oil which was rich in oemga-3.

The stream had only recently acquired its name courtesy of a local environmental group, the Menhaden Project, which appeared to be well-funded. It’s logo, naturally, was an erupting mushroom cloud but instead of a nuclear crest it had a menhaden. It was selling T-shirts for $30 each with a note indicating half of all t-shirt sales went to the Save the Neuse River Foundation. The Foundation website had the menhaden logo and several paragraphs on the “impending death” of the Neuse River from the increasing algal blooms from fertilizers on lawns and farms, “animal effluvia” — which Noonan knew by another name — and residue from wastewater treatment plants — which Noonan also knew by another name. It was a growing riverine crisis and, according to the URL, the Cliffs of the Neuse Vineyard and Winery was at the forefront of a “mitigation effort” which an “experimental effort” along its 200 feet of Neuse riverfront. Those mitigation efforts included a cleansing of the river water used in the vineyard to produce a unique, organic grape and the recycling of runoff from the vineyard, state-of-the-art shoreline enhancements, “environmentally friendly” wine transfer tanks, pumps and tankers on the dock and reduced carbon emission in the winery.

The clanging in Noonan’s cerebral cavity was now loud and clear.

* * *

Harold Salonitah of the Turtle Luxury Junk and Storage was pleased to hear back from the “Bearded Holmes.”

“I don’t want the plates back.”

“Not a problem. You won’t be getting them back.”

“That’s the good news. Where’d they go?”

“Let me tell you about the blond with the $250,000 Rolls Royce. Seeing you’re in the luxury auto storage business.”

“Is this a once upon a time stories?”

“Could be. Let’s start that way. Once upon a time a blond went into a bank for a loan. She wanted to borrow $4,000 for a week and put up her $200,000 Rolls Royce as collateral. The banker told the blond the bank would have to hold the car as collateral and the blond said that was fine. So the blond got the $4,000 loan and the bank took her car as collateral and placed it in a luxury storage yard like yours.”

“Does this have a funny ending?” Salonitah asked.

“Well see,” Noonan replied. “Continuing,” Noonan said to cut off any further comments from Salonitah. “For the next two weeks the bank’s loan officer kept telling his wife and everyone he knew about the dumb blond who borrowed $4,000 against a $200,000 Rolls Royce and was without the car for two weeks. Over and over he told the story until his wife was sick of it. At the end of the two weeks the blond came into the bank, paid off the $4,000 loan and got her car back. As the blond was standing on the sidewalk waiting for the return of the Rolls Royce, , the bank’s loan officer’s wife and approached. The wife whined the blond was ‘giving all women a bad name’ by doing something stupid by putting up a $200,000 Rolls Royce as collateral for a $4,000 loan. The blond just chuckled. ‘You’re just looking at my hair color, not my brains,’ she said. ‘Bank charges and interest on the $4,000 for two weeks was $37.58. And my $200,000 car was in the most secure parking place in the city.’”

Salonitah chuckled. Then he asked, “OK, humor aside. The license plates?”

Noonan smiled. “A few more than 400 license plates were taken. License plates are a foot by six inches. So, if one were so inclined, one could make an artificial levee 200 feet long and a foot high. Set into the shoreline it would keep the water of the river from rising too high and flood out an, shall we say, an agricultural enterprise.”

“Yes, we shall say that. Now, why the secret? Why not just buy the plates and put them in. 400 plates is about $400.”

“True. But to do anything along a river bank requires a lot of permitting and waiting and more permitting and more waiting and public hearings and more waiting and public comments and more waiting.”

Salonitah got the message. “I see. So if someone sank the license plates into the bank of some river to keep rising water from flooding something ….”

“… which had nothing to do with the installation of the license plates….” Noonan continued Salonitah’s sentence.

Then Salonitah finished the thought, sentence and explanation of the reality. “… the license plates would stay where they were and no one would be at legal risk.”

“That’s the way I read it,” Noonan said. “The plates went for a good cause. I see no reason to upset any applecart. The thefts were for a good cause and if the police won’t investigate, why should I?”

“I agree,” Salonitah said chuckling. “Now, what are we going to tell the powers that be?”

Now Noonan chuckled. “I’d say it was a hush-hush operation by a federal agency and when that agency has completed its investigation, kudos will be passed around.”

“My wife’s sister-in-law is not going to live with that.”

“No problem. Send a letter to the FBI about the license plate thefts. Show her the letter. The FBI is the perfect cloak. It admits nothing, confirms nothing and answers no questions. That will finish matter.”

“That’s it?”

“No. When I doubt, buy North Carolina organic wine. Support your local businesses.”

[Heinz Noonan’s impossible crime novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi.]

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