By Jenny Neyman
Paul Wright was getting ready to leave for work Aug. 14 at his home on Ruby Circle, off Gaswell Road, when he got a confusing phone call from Alaska State Troopers.
“They said, ‘There’s a vehicle registered in your name that is currently on fire in Nikiski,’” Wright said.
Wright thought it must be a vehicle he had owned years before, had sold and the new owners never transferred it to their name. He asked what kind of vehicle it was, wondering which of his old cars had met its unfortunate demise in a Nikiski inferno.
“They said, “a green, Isuzu Rodeo.”
Wright had parked his 1996 green, Isuzu Rodeo in his driveway when he got home the previous evening.
“I opened my front door, and oh … . My car is gone. That’s how I found out,” he said.
Wright plays bass in The Mabrey Brothers band and got home about 4 a.m. Friday morning after a gig the night before. He parked in the driveway, went to bed, got up later that morning and was getting ready to go to work at noon for his job as a theater technician with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District when he got the call from troopers at about 10:30 a.m. It had rained that night, and Wright hadn’t heard anything amiss over the rain. When he asked his neighbors about it later, they hadn’t seen or heard anything unusual, either. Wright had left his keys in the car, dropped on the floorboard as he usually did when he got home.
“So that was my precautionary measure,” he said, with a verbal eye roll.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like me that much. I know that kids will walk through neighborhoods at night, open cars up and steal what’s in them, but these guys just happened to be a little more entrepreneurial, I guess,” he said.
The trooper informed Wright that his car had been reported abandoned and on fire by a homeowner on private property in Nikiski, at about Mile 33 of the Kenai Spur Highway.
“The cop goes, ‘So, you know that you’re responsible for getting that car off that property, right?’ While it’s still on fire,” Wright said.
That presented a bit of a predicament. Wright’s other vehicle, a Toyota pickup, is broken down, and the replacement parts he had bought just the day before to fix it were still in his Isuzu, along with Wright’s keys and keys to his girlfriend’s car.
When he did get out to Nikiski, his Rodeo had become a smoldering, worst-case scenario. The fire was hot enough to melt the windows, strip the paint off the exterior and fuse the wheels. It was totally, utterly, epically destroyed.
He saw tire marks from his car in the ditch alongside the highway and skid marks where the driver slammed on the brakes, then backed up to the spot where they took off into the woods.
“There was no trail, no nothing. They just barreled straight into the trees, knocking over about 8-inch-around trees. I had no idea that car was that tough,” Wright said. “They got about 100 yards back into the woods. I’m guessing from how the front end and back end were so dented in, I guess that’s about as far as they could get. I don’t know if they set it on fire because they were smart and wanted to cover up their fingerprints and stuff, or they just thought it would be funny.”
He’d just put about $6,000 of work into the vehicle the week before, redoing the transmission, the drivelines and replacing the brakes and shocks, he said.
“I practically replaced everything that could break on the damn thing, then they set it on fire,” he said. “Why’d they have to set it on fire?”
He sifted through the ashy debris for remnants of his belongings, but they were gone — tools for work, an iPod, his Chiefs steering wheel cover, sunglasses, his wallet, driver’s license and credit cards. But not quite everything was missing.
“The strangest thing of all was the Chilton’s auto repair book, that thing didn’t burn. The whole car burned — the rims melted off the damn thing — and the Chilton’s book didn’t burn whatsoever. Now what kind of sense does that make?” he said.
In rummaging around the floorboard, he found a lump of glass, ash and fused debris, and decided to break it open. Inside was a warped lump of all his keys.
“So I don’t have to worry about them getting into my house or anything, so I’m happy about that,” Wright said.
Trooper Matt Ezell said the theft is under investigation, although there are no witnesses and no leads. Wright said he found a three-way electrical plug adapter in the woods between the highway and his Isuzu that he figures the thieves must have dropped. He’s hoping a fingerprint can be lifted off it, or that someone remembers seeing his Isuzu the night it was stolen and can help identify the thieves.
He bought an inexpensive truck to get around in, and is working on getting the wreck of his Isuzu out of Nikiski.
“This is the kicker — I just paid it off and dropped (the insurance coverage on) it to liability only, so it’s a complete loss. Yeah, that really stung,” Wright said.
More than that, it stings to have to worry about things like this now, in a neighborhood he previously thought was safe.
“I have to think about keeping everything locked all the time, which I’ve never had to do before. The garage, the house, things I never thought I needed to before. I lost a little faith in humanity there,” Wright said.
And his vehicle?
“The keys are in my pocket,” Wright said, taking them out and jingling them for emphasis. “The doors are locked.”