Thieves didn't just wreck her car; they changed her town

Anne O'Connor
Anne O'Connor: After a few years in a town like mine, you would loosen your tie, lose your high heels, and yes, perhaps, even leave your keys in your car.
Submitted photo

Anne O'Connor, a speaker, writer and editor in Viroqua, Wis., blogs at

The sheriff's deputy called me at 7:15 a.m. asking me if I knew where my car was.

I walked to the window to look out into my driveway, where I had left my car the night before. There was just an empty spot of gravel.

"No," I groaned. "I don't know where my car is. But I bet you do."

My car had been stolen right out of my driveway.

I live in a small town. City officials like to call it a city, but at 4,300 people and the nearest city of 50,000 almost an hour away, it's really a small town. Tiny, even.

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When I describe it to my city-dwelling friends, I tell them how my children can go anywhere and someone knows who they are. How people take care of one another, welcoming new babies, helping each other care for the sick or injured, celebrating important moments together, making good things happen for the town. It is an extraordinary place.

And one of the things I always mention is that, for nine years, I've left my keys in my car and my house unlocked. Guess I won't be doing that anymore.

I know that for a lot of people it's challenging to imagine a place where any reasonable person would ever think it's OK to leave keys in the car.

When I first moved here, I saw people go into our co-op and leave their children in the car. Little children. I was outraged. I remember looking around thinking, what is this? How can these kids just be sitting out here alone? Don't their parents know how many bad things can happen in the world? Where's their imagination?

I've always had a great imagination. I covered crime for a newspaper in Minneapolis for years, so I don't even have to rely on my imagination. There's no question that people can be wicked.

But if you lived here every day, and you saw the same people at the co-op, and you knew more than half of the people in the store every time you went, I'm guessing that after a few years, you would loosen your tie, lose your high heels, and yes, perhaps, even leave your keys in your car.

It's really a pretty good life.

But suddenly my car was gone. Worse, it sounded like it had been totaled.

I have never had a love affair with a car. I don't particularly like cars. But they're certainly handy. I sure get places fast and get a lot of stuff done with a car. And now I don't have one.

I went out to the scene, about five miles from my house, where the thief had slammed the car into a tree doing about 70 miles per hour. I wanted to see for myself.

Up until the time I saw the car, I was really very calm. As I said, I'm not particularly attached to my car. And I'll get another one. It was a hassle, but not really a crisis.

And then I saw the place where the thief's head had broken the glass on the windshield, protruding out into a gentle mound of crushed glass. I saw the top of the ignition key on the floor of the car, where it had been snapped off, probably by his knee. The rest of the key stayed in the ignition and the car was endlessly beeping, reminding me to take the key out or to close the door. I saw the middle part, in between the seats, where there was a handy little drawer for stuff, ripped off, probably from the force of his body.

The tree had smashed viciously into the driver's side, crushing whoever was in that spot. There was blood on the airbag. And blood on the package of wet wipes that I keep under the seat. He must have tried to grab some to stop the blood, but he couldn't get them out from under the crushed seat.

I looked at the tree, bark scraped off and tiny shards of bright red blinker glass embedded into the trunk. I scanned the woods around the area and realized that this could be a far bigger deal than I had understood. My neck muscles tightened at the violence of the scene. This person had apparently walked away. But he hadn't shown up in the emergency room. Could he be out in a ditch somewhere?

I thought about him all day. I wondered if he had gone home alone, or had someone come and picked him up from the lonely country road? Was he badly injured? Was it possible that the air bags really protected him that much? Could he be that lucky?

Yes, he was protected. And yes, very lucky, as it turns out. Within two days, two teenage boys were arrested and confessed to stealing and trashing my car. They were caught because the mother of one of the boys saw his injuries, became suspicious, and called the cops. What a brave and terrible thing to have to do for your son. I'm glad she called.

Yes, I made it easy for him by leaving the keys in the car. That was my piece of negligence. After what actually happened, I realize how lucky I am. I'm lucky those boys didn't kill themselves. I'm lucky they didn't kill anyone else.

I'm not blaming myself for the kids' night of stupidity. That's all theirs. But I am sorry that one of the boys is old enough to have a felony on his record for the rest of his life. I am sorry they got hurt and may have lasting injuries.

I told the district attorney that I would be willing to have the boys come and do yard work for me as part of the restitution that they'll have to pay. I'd like for them to hear about how my 5-year-old sobbed when I told her what happened and asked me, "How could anyone do something so horrible?"

I'd like to tell them about waking up at 3 a.m. and wondering if someone was downstairs — despite all my best rationalizing and understanding of how unlikely that might be.

I'd like to tell them how they changed my little town for me. About how I'll live here just a little bit differently. I'd like them to know.