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At first, Rosemary Diehl didn't realize she had been robbed.
She owns two houses in northwest Phoenix. Her mother lives in one, but over the Christmas holidays, her mother was staying with a relative in Kansas. When Diehl would stop in to pick up the mail and check her mother's residence, she kept getting the eerie feeling that things had been moved. She figured it was her imagination.

That is, until the day after Christmas, when she found the house ransacked.
"I walked in and the back door was wide open and stuff was all over," she says. "I went to the garage and my van was gone."

The thief or thieves not only stole Diehl's 1989 Ford Aerostar van, they found the vehicle's title in a box of papers.

The stolen van has been located. But apparently, Rosemary Diehl won't get it back.

The thieves sold the car to a Michigan man named Larry Sternberg, who bought it in good faith from a woman who had a notarized title. Sternberg took that title to the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division, which reissued the title in his name.

Because Sternberg holds a clear title to the vehicle, the law--at least as interpreted by Diehl's insurance company--says that it belongs to him. Diehl must settle for a cash payment from the insurance company.

The thieves, so far, are running free.
On several occasions in December, Diehl, 59, was not the only person checking on her mother's house. The intruders apparently had stayed in the home at night.

They stole several guns, jewelry, sterling silverware, a camcorder, a VCR, a cordless phone, a compressor, a vacuum cleaner, a power saw and other tools, and her mother's collection of 20 porcelain dolls. They even stole the water meter.

The intruders also found her mother's checkbook and cleaned out the checking account. And because they found Diehl's credit-card statements from the mail, they were able to run up about $2,000 in charges.

As the law requires, the van's vehicle identification number was entered into the NCIC, the criminal database maintained by the FBI.

On December 22, four days before Diehl even discovered the thefts, thieves had taken out a classified ad in the Arizona Republic to sell the van. They asked for $6,850 and described it as "like new. Must sell now! Sacrifice." They left a phone number and ran the ad until December 29. To add insult to injury, they had the bill for the ad sent to Diehl.

Larry Sternberg was looking for a vehicle that his snowbird parents could use, and that he could use himself when he was staying at his second home in the East Valley.

"The people who sold it must have known [the owners]," Sternberg says, because they seemed to know a lot about them.

"The police asked me if I knew a woman who had no teeth, who was big busted and had blond hair," says Diehl. "She and a man said that she was the [van owner's] granddaughter and that she had my power of attorney."

Sternberg met the purported granddaughter at a Smitty's parking lot three times as he haggled the price down to $6,000. Then he took a notarized title to the Motor Vehicle Division and got a new title.

"The notary notarized it without my signature and the MVD let it go through," Diehl says.

Meanwhile, insurance fraud investigators set out to find the stolen car. When they ran the vehicle identification number through MVD's database, they traced it to Sternberg.

Diehl assumed she'd get the van back.
Not so. But no one seems to be able to figure out exactly who made that decision.

Diehl's insurer, Country Companies, determined that since Sternberg had bought the van in good faith and held a clear title, he was entitled to it under an Arizona law designed to protect pawnshop owners who inadvertently buy stolen material.

Whether that reasoning would stand up in court is another question. But the insurance company reluctantly offered to pay Diehl $7,800 for the loss of the van.

"We've offered to pay her and get her taken care of," says Ashley Ford, an adjuster for Diehl's insurer, "but she wants her vehicle back, and I can't blame her."

Kenneth Hamilton, investigative supervisor at MVD, says his agency does not routinely check vehicle identification numbers to see if a car is stolen unless someone is registering an auto from out of state.

Hamilton has since put a "stop" on the van, so that it cannot be reregistered.

"It freezes any further transactions on the database concerning that vehicle," he says.

In the meantime, Sternberg owns the van, even though he may not be able to renew his registration unless the stop is lifted or he registers it out of state.

He intends to keep the car and feels he is entitled to it.
"Don't punish me," Sternberg says.
"No, I'm the victim," Diehl protests. "It was stolen from me."

Despite the phone number published in the Republic and Sternberg's detailed description of the people who sold him the van, Phoenix police still have not made any arrests in the case. Attempts to get a comment from police were unsuccessful.

And Rosemary Diehl is left with her own questions.
"Can anyone answer me why this town is so stupid?" she asks.

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Michael Kiefer