MIA at MIA

Luggage isn't the only thing that gets lost at Miami's bustling airport. There's Volvos and Hondas and Fords -- oh, my!

The trouble started when Prince Guram Eristavi slipped on the ice outside his residence in the Czech Republic, breaking his ribs. What with the Christmas merrymaking and the spectacular New Year's party and now the unexpected hospitalization, the prince's return to his winter home in Miami was much delayed. When he finally arrived at Miami International Airport in mid-January, his 1989 Volvo, which he'd left in the parking garage the previous summer, was nowhere to be found.

Walter Walters, Eristavi's personal secretary, recalls the morning he drove the prince to the airport: "It was raining, sometime in July. We called three cab companies and nobody came, so we decided to take the car."

After searching in vain for the gray sedan, Walters flagged down a parking authority supervisor, who explained that the Volvo had been towed away. When he got to the muddy compound in Overtown where the Volvo now sat, he wept. His car was covered with grime. The turn signal lights were broken. The battery was missing and so was the radio. Still, he was fortunate the car was there at all: A few more days and the Volvo would have been sold at auction.

"There was all hell to be paid, and we still haven't gotten over it," says Walters, referring to a small fortune in parking fees and towing charges.

One of the bright spots in this ordeal was Prince Eristavi's encounter with J.M. Denis, the manager of Meyers Parking, a private company that runs MIA's parking system. ("Mr. Denis is a gentleman," Walter Walters notes. "He speaks very fine French.") By night Denis is Jan Mapou, a playwright, radio commentator, and bookstore proprietor who chronicles the hardships of the Haitian diaspora and plumbs the mysteries of the human heart. By day Denis ponders another mystery: why some people never come back to retrieve their cars from the airport's parking garages.

About half the 225 vehicles that have been abandoned since 1993 were dumped at the airport by car thieves. It's the other half that makes Denis scratch his well-groomed beard. People fly to another city and get sick, get mugged, die, land in jail, or simply decide to start a new life. But only occasionally -- as in the case of Prince Eristavi -- does Denis find out exactly what happened.

Each night one of Denis's employees walks through the airport's long- and short-term parking garages, smoking cigarettes and recording each and every license plate on a small, handheld computer. (This is why airport authorities want you to park head-in, with your tag easily visible). The laborious nightly "lot check" results in an inventory of all parked cars, which the county police department's auto-theft detectives use to hunt for stolen vehicles, and which Denis uses to determine whether a car has remained in the garage more than 30 days.

After 30 days the tedious paperwork begins: Denis sends the license plate number to a downtown tag agency, which faxes him back the name and address of the owner. Once he knows the owner, Denis writes a certified letter warning that the car could be towed.

At 60 days Denis drafts an abandoned vehicle report. If it's approved by the county's aviation department, he calls his friend Orlando Molina, tow truck man par excellence. Molina photographs the car and hauls it to his fortresslike headquarters on NW Seventh Avenue.

The law requires Molina to wait 35 days before selling the car at auction or for scrap. If the owner materializes during that time and is willing to pay the back parking fees and Molina's towing and storage charges, the car is returned.

Most never show up, though some phone in from overseas. One called from Italy, ill, and begged Molina not to sell his beloved Mercedes. Another called from the Virgin Islands, just to let Molina know he'd found a great job and didn't know if he'd ever return to Miami.

"One day I got a call from a guy who says, 'Can I have my truck back? I went to Santo Domingo and got in a terrible accident and almost lost my life.'" Molina recalls. "I said I couldn't give it to him because it was already sold. The guy who bought the truck at the auction noticed it had a double gas tank. He filled up both tanks with gas but one of them didn't work: It was a false tank, to carry drugs in! That guy in Santo Domingo, he's in the computer now, and if he ever comes back here, the cops'll put him on ice right away."

Molina, who has been towing for 32 years, says he has also been studying human nature. "I'll tell you what it is," he explains. "Most of the people come to Miami from another state as an adventure. As a single person, or with a partner. Some of them do good, but some don't. They don't make it. Then they look around and what they're looking at is a car with more than 200,000 miles on it. They go to the airport, get a one-way ticket out of Miami, and leave that car behind.

"In some cases a guy might go see a friend or a relative in another state," Molina goes on. "He gets a job. He meets a girl. And he never comes back. Other times he does come back and the parking fee is up to $500. The car might be worth $1400, $1600, but he doesn't have the cash to pay."

Two other reasons for abandonment occur to Juan Santana, a Metro police sergeant who supervises auto-theft detectives at the airport. Thieves know that some motorists equip their cars with electronic tracking devices such as Lo-Jack. So they steal a car, park it at the airport temporarily, and wait to see if the cops show up.

"Unfortunately an airport is sort of like a shopping center for cars," Santana says. "You'll have a guy steal an Acura at the Fort Lauderdale airport, then let it sit in Miami for a week. If he sees it's safe, he'll retrieve it."

Insurance fraud is another motive. "You have a lemon, you park the car here, you report it stolen the same day," Santana explains. "After 30 days the insurance company will reimburse you for it. We might not identify it as stolen in that time frame." (Identifying stolen cars isn't as quick or easy as one might think, Santana notes. Running the license plate through a computer isn't enough, because thieves routinely switch plates to trip up investigators. To be sure an abandoned car is stolen, detectives have to personally inspect it, taking into account the vehicle identification number stamped on the car by the manufacturer.)

Leatha Bouie, J.M. Denis's assistant, points out that some people simply don't notice the signs that outline the 60-day policy, which are posted in all the parking garages. They think it's okay to park indefinitely. "I remember a case where a gentleman had gone to Mexico and was working down there for months. He didn't realize there was a tow policy. He didn't get our certified letter because he wasn't at home."

Bouie says she occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about mystery cars. "We've had some that I've wondered and wondered about," she recounts. "One was a disabled person -- he parked in a handicapped space and just never came back. We let the car stay more than 500 days. Maybe he passed away, but there's no way for us to know. The best stories are the ones we never hear. I think about why anybody would go away and leave a Cadillac for 30, 40, 50 days. I feel like saying, 'Bring it over to my house! I'll use it.' But that's just people. They do strange stuff."

As for Prince Eristavi, he's still traumatized by the near loss of his Volvo. "He is so upset he's not going to visit here any more," says Walters, the prince's secretary. "Maybe Greece next year.

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