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Port Vigilance Restores Stolen Bike to Owner After 34 Years

April 13, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Let's hope they're as good at keeping out the bombs as they are at keeping in the beauties.

For the second time in recent months, the Department of Homeland Security has prevented a stolen collector's-item vehicle from being shipped out of the Port of Los Angeles.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers Wednesday returned a classic Yamaha motorcycle swiped 34 1/2 years ago off a Long Beach street to its surprised and delighted owner.

The recovery mirrored that of a stolen, pristine 1968 Corvette, which federal agents returned to its owner in January. The $18,000 sports car was taken from a New York City garage in 1969.

Customs agents found that vehicle in a steel shipping container headed to a car buff in Stockholm.

The motorcycle, still in good shape and running condition, was discovered in a shipping container destined for Lahti, Finland. A man there purchased it last fall on EBay from an unsuspecting Visalia, Calif., resident for $1,725.

Just as before, agents turned to a national insurance group's database to track down 1971 crime victim Philip McMeen. Now an airline pilot who lives in Concord, N.H., he traveled to Long Beach on Wednesday to retrieve his motorcycle.

Homeland Security officials acknowledged that many people are more interested in what customs and border officers are keeping out of the United States than what they are keeping in.

Don't worry, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Fleming said. "We screen all cargo coming in and physically inspect 6%" of shipping containers -- those that the initial screenings deem high-risk.

As with most people, the threat of a dirty nuclear bomb in a shipping container slipping through American ports "is our worst fear," Fleming said. That's why gamma ray and X-ray devices along with physical inspections are used for scanning high-risk shipments, he said.

McMeen, 57, is an American Airlines captain. He said he frequently flew American's Flight 11, which was commandeered by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Because of his work, he admires border and customs agents.

"From the air I see mile after mile of shipping containers. They can't check every one, but I appreciate what they do," McMeen said.

Heightened security at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors has paid unexpected dividends since the start of 2002, Customs and Border Protection administrators say.

Through the end of 2005, agents had seized 221 outward-bound vehicles worth a total of $4.7 million. Many were blocked from shipment because of improper export papers, because they were unmanifested or because of under-evaluation.

Most were luxury SUVs. But two were new Philippines-bound GMC Yukons worth a combined $230,000 that were outfitted with armor plating and "tear gas dispersal" equipment. Sixty-eight vehicles, including the 1968 Corvette, were found to have been stolen.

Imported cars -- such as the infamous Ferrari Enzo that some authorities believe Swedish video game executive Stefan Eriksson crashed into a Malibu power pole in February while driving 162 mph -- are more problematic, port agents have discovered.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested Eriksson, 44, at his Bel-Air estate Saturday, alleging that he didn't own the Enzo or other imported cars in his $3.5-million exotic auto collection. Instead, authorities said, they are owned by British financial institutions.

"We'd like to know how he got them in the country," Fleming said.

As authorities returned McMeen's motorcycle to him, they had former Long Beach Police Officer John Finn hand over the keys. Finn, who retired from the department 16 years ago, took the stolen vehicle report Oct. 4, 1971, when a chain was cut and the Yamaha RT 360 was taken from outside McMeen's apartment on Nieto Avenue in Belmont Shore.

"I told Mr. McMeen we'd probably get it back," but not to expect it right away, Finn said.

When a routine check of the motorcycle's vehicle identification number on the shipper's export papers showed it had been reported stolen, Long Beach police dug up the original report from microfilmed records.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau database turned up McMeen's phone number in New Hampshire. Bureau Special Agent Richard Litsinger telephoned with the news.

"I was skeptical when I got the call," McMeen said. "I thought it was a scam. I was waiting for him to ask me for my Social Security number or credit card number."

McMeen received a helmet from Long Beach Police Sgt. Dave Cannan, who reminded him that a helmet safety law had been enacted since the pilot's last California cycle ride. McMeen climbed aboard the Yamaha and gave it a couple of kick starts.

With a loud, lawnmower-like putt-putt-putt and a cloud of blue smoke, it started right up. He made several circuits around the impound lot.

The motorcycle had been McMeen's primary form of transportation in 1971, when he was living near the beach and working at a chemical company, he said. "I was reduced to tennis shoes -- to walking -- when it was stolen."

These days, he drives a Toyota pickup and, on weekends, a Dodge Viper.

So he will make some minor cosmetic repairs to the Yamaha and polish it up "as a tribute" to those who found it and returned it to him, he said.

A Long Beach police officer volunteered to help him crate the cycle for shipping today. It will be sent to New Hampshire by Amtrak rail. "They have a great shipping service," McMeen said.

Why not just fly it east in the baggage compartment of an American Airlines passenger plane?

"They'd lose it," McMeen said with a laugh.

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