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Mustang is corralled after 38 years

March 21, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

The last time Eugene Brakke drove his honey-gold 1965 Ford Mustang, he was young and single, and the throaty little sports car "certainly didn't hurt" with the ladies. He parked at work that day in May 1970, at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, and when he came out later it was gone.

The police asked him how much gas was in the tank, suggesting the thieves may have just taken it out for a joy ride. But with gas at about 36 cents a gallon then, he thought they could probably afford to buy some more.

Brakke held hopes that it would turn up somewhere. He loved that car like a member of his family. But eventually, he figured it was gone -- meaning somewhere in Tijuana.

Then this week -- Monday or Tuesday, he can't remember -- he got a call from a detective at the San Diego Police Department.

"We found your car," the detective said.

Brakke, now 80 and living in Costa Mesa, was impressed. That's police work, he said. But he soon learned that the woman who owned the car, since May 1970, deserved the accolades.

Judy Smongesky, 55, got the car as a gift when she graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Her father bought it from a used-car dealer in Bellflower for $1,114. It was her dream car. They had the engine rebuilt in 1974 and painted it green, then blue-gray.

By the 1990s, the car had fallen into disrepair and was parked in her garage in San Diego. A neighbor wanted to buy it. But he came back to her and said the vehicle identification number tag on the door was different from the one inside the engine compartment -- an indication that it may have been stolen.

She notified San Diego police, who looked into it and told her the car's history was clean, she said.

Smongesky put in about $4,000 to rebuild the engine again and do other repairs. But the different tags bothered her. One tag identified the car as having been built in San Jose. The other said it was built in Dearborn, Mich. She didn't want to invest any more money until she was sure that it was legally her car. She investigated on the Internet, and contacted the Department of Motor Vehicles and police again.

Police detectives called her back and said it had been stolen and that they had found the owner. Legally, it was his, if he wanted it, they said.

"It is his car and he could take it, even though I spent all this money," Smongesky said. "This is my baby. I've had it since I was 18."

Brakke said he had been given conflicting reports of its condition. First, police told him the car had no engine or transmission, then that it was good to drive. Great, he thought. But his enthusiasm waned when the detective mentioned the car was pale blue now.

Brakke had ordered that honey-gold from the factory. That was the smooth color in 1965. And don't be mistaken: If it hadn't been stolen, a honey-gold 1965 Mustang would be parked in his driveway to this day -- next to his 1959 Ford Ranchero.

"When I get a car, I take care of it and I like it, and it becomes a member of my family," he said.

He planned to pick it up in San Diego on Thursday but decided he didn't feel up to fighting traffic.

He's not sure if he'll keep it. Yet if it's in good shape, he thinks he might have it painted honey-gold.

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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