The detective eased himself down into the freshly dug trench. The guy who'd been driving the skip loader hovered nearby. A few helpers leaned on their shovels, waiting for the detective to finish his work. His work was to check the car for corpses.
This past January, we told you about a 1974 Dino 246 GTS found buried in someone's yard in Los Angeles back in 1978. Through a bit of luck and some, ahem, digging, we found the car (yes, it's alive, and looks gorgeous) and even more, tantalizing backstory.
With the help of the Dino's current owner and one of the investigators on the case, who fed us some juicy, previously-unreported, LA-noir-like details, we wrapped it all up into a mini-documentary for this week's Jalopnik on Drive. Watch it, and then read this. It's the real, real story about the buried Dino.
Act I: The Dig, January 1978
The snitch didn't mention anything about victims, but in this corner of Los Angeles County's sprawl — across the 105 from South Central — one never knows.
Whoever buried it had thrown a few rugs on top, a tender, if lame attempt to shield the car's sleek, Italian form from the sub-terrain. LA County Sheriff's detective Dennis Carroll heaved the rugs aside, wiped a smear of grime from the windshield with his hand and peered through. No bodies.
A sweep of the interior and trunk turned up no drugs or contraband either, but a run of the plates confirmed what his detective's gut — hell, anyone's gut — told him. The dug-up sports car, a 1974 Dino 246 GTS, was on the LAPD's stolen list.
Next thing, there's a lady reporter from the LA Times poking around. She wants to know how the Sheriff's department knew the Dino (is that a Ferrari or what?) was down there. Carroll and his partner, Sgt. Joe Sabas, gruff veterans of the burglary and narcotics beats, were ready with an answer. Some kids playing in the dirt found it. Ain't that something?
Yeah, sure. Better to make up a story than compromise a good snitch. Even if he is on the needle. You never know who knows what about whom around here, and right now — regarding the pock-marked sports car peering up at them from a backyard hidey hole — they knew Jack squat.
Then the snitch adds a twist of lime. An insurance scam.
Act II: The Crime, December, 1974
The snitch says the Dino's owner had hired a couple guys to make it disappear. The plan was to snatch it up on the night of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, while the owner sipped martinis with his wife at the Brown Derby on Wilshire.
Then the owner would feed the cops a cock-and-bull story. A too-hungry look in the eyes of the Derby's parking valet spooked him, he'd say, so he'd parked the sparkling green Dino on Wilshire. That's where the mooks lifted it. Shame, too. The car had been a present for his wife.
Poor bastard won't be getting laid tonight, the cops'd joke, after sending the owner — one Rosendo Cruz of Alhambra, California — on his way. A "righteous theft," is how they'd write it up.
Then the hired guys would chop up the Dino and sink it somewhere off the coast. Cruz would cop his check from Farmers Insurance, slide the help their cut, and everyone would be in the wind — a few grand richer.
But it didn't work out that way. The hired guys clipped the Dino off Wilshire, all right, but they fell hard for her Italian curves. Just like the Huntsman and Snow White: They couldn't land the dagger.
They torched out the rear badge, maybe as a souvenir, maybe as a claim check. Then they buried her whole in some sucker's yard in West Athens; some say it was in an old mechanic's pit. The boss got his check, but the idiots never came back for her.
At least, that's what the snitch said, almost 35 years ago.
Act III: The Search, May 2012
I'm walking down a back alley in the West Athens section of Los Angeles. I'm looking for any evidence that a 1974 Dino was once buried around here. All I've got to go on is a sketchy address and a couple black-and-white newspaper photos.
We breach some sort of territory line, and the alley erupts in canine alarm. To my left, a jet-black shepherd mix and a mottled pit-bull detonate inside their pens, baring jaw through the reinforced chicken wire. There's a woman standing on a roof deck who's trying to talk on the phone, yelling over the barking, snarling guard dogs. She doesn't know the address we're looking for.
We wander a bit further down the alley, toward a lot on which stands an assortment of ramshackle out buildings, one of which vaguely captures the feel of the scene in the photo from 1978. Could this be it? There's no way to be sure. Who knows if the LA Times even got the address right? After all, they got detective Carroll's name wrong. Maybe they botched the address too.
We make our way back down the alley, past the dogs' pens, to our rented Crown Vic and head off.
The next day, I get a call from retired Sheriff's detective Dennis Carroll. (The Times reporter, in the original article, referred to him as "Lenny," which earned Carroll a new nickname around the station). I'd tracked down his e-mail address with help from a former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department colleague of his, but after a terse e-mail outreach, Carroll hadn't called back. Until now.
Carroll, now 74, is at his home in Southern California. He says he'd been wary about speaking with me. He thinks I've been in touch with the Dino's original owner — the guy who had the car clipped. I explain it's the car's current owner I've located, and he loosens up. That's when he tells me about the snitch and the alleged insurance scam.
Still, for Carroll and his former partner, Sgt. Joe Sabas, who handled the buried Dino back in '78, the case was just a footnote. (Sabas died in 2005 while on a fishing trip in Baja.) After all, Carroll said, he'd "seen every riot in Los Angeles," during his 34-year career, not to mention countless robberies, murders, arsons, drug felonies and whatnot. A buried car is like a cat in a tree. And anyway, 3,000 cars were being stolen in LA County every month back then.
The thing Carroll remembers most is the phone calls — so many of them. "Seemed like everyone and their mother wanted that car."
Epilogue: The Car
Brad Howard says I got most of he story right in the first Jalopnik article. But I got one thing majorly wrong. The 1974 Dino 246 GTS has been registered to him since it was lovingly restored back in 1978.
Howard's story comes in after Farmer's Insurance sold the car to a Los Angeles businessman named Ara Manoogian. Howard, who was was engaged in a real-estate deal with Manoogian, overheard him on the phone talking to a mechanic he'd hired. They were talking about the Dino. Howard sensed Manoogian wanted out, and made him an offer for the car, if he could get it running. Manoogian hired another local mechanic — this time, Ferrari expert Giuseppe Cappalonga — to sort out the engine, which needed serious attention. Watch the video for more on the Dino's revival and post-restoration life.
If it wasn't for the drought — the same one that led to the water-conservation laws that led the Z-Boys skate crew to invent swimming-pool pool skating — the Dino might have been in worse shape. But because the soil had been mostly dry through the years 1976 and 1977 and most of 1978, it had been preserved like a mummy in Egyptian sands.
That, along with a few, star-struck car thieves and one man's desire to see a beautiful Italian car nursed back to health, is how the buried Dino survived to carve the canyons for three extra decades.