INDIANAPOLIS — The car had been in the impound lot for about five weeks when it was sold to a scrap dealer for less than $400.
It was a 2003 Ford Taurus, gold in color, with a dent in the back from a crash last spring.
It wasn’t worth a whole lot of money, even before that June night when it became the scene of a terrible crime.
But for Dana Croom, that gold car with the dented rear-end held a vault of irreplaceable memories. The crucifix on the mirror, sunglasses in the glove box and bowling balls in the trunk.
These things were close to Croom's son Justice Wills when someone ended his life and that of his friend Eric Colvin Jr. as the two young men sat in the front seat of that Ford Taurus.
“I know that he had a rosary hanging on his rear-view mirror. I would have liked to have gotten that, you know,” Croom said. “I'm sure that he had, you know, sunglasses and little different stuff, you know, in the vehicle that I would have liked to have gotten.”
Croom said she never had the chance to look inside the car. By the time she found out the detectives were done holding onto the Taurus, she said the impound lot told her the car had been sold.
When a vehicle is impounded as evidence in this city, the victim gets the bill.
Families of people killed in homicides, people whose cars have been stolen and other crime victims must pay hundreds of dollars to retrieve their vehicles whenever a car is towed away and stored as evidence. Under a contract, 25% of the money the towing and impound service collects goes back to the city.
The impound lot sent letters to Wills, the registered owner who was shot to death inside that very car. The letters advised Wills that he needed to claim the Ford within 30 days or it would be sold. The family had moved recently, so the notice had to be forwarded to their current address.
"You know with everything that was going on at the time and just trying to deal with the loss of my son, of course, I'm not opening his mail right away when it comes in," Croom said. "I fully expected that the vehicle would stay in police custody until the duration of the trial or it came to a close, or whatever the case was considering two people were shot to death in it."
Croom's son, Wills, 22, and his friend Colvin, 18, were shot to death in the car on the night of June 28 in the parking lot of an apartment complex a couple of blocks north of Warren Central High School on the far east side.
Frank Mecklenburg is the CEO of TEGSCO, the company that manages the towing and impound service. The company used to be known as AutoReturn, which is the name of the software used to track towed and impounded vehicles. The company sold the technology and rebranded earlier this year, Mecklenburg said.
The Taurus was impounded on June 29 under what police and the lot call a “detective hold,” Mecklenburg told WRTV in a phone interview.
The hold means the vehicle is considered evidence in a crime and only law enforcement have access. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department removed the detective hold on July 2, Mecklenburg said.
Mecklenburg said the impound service searched national records and found two addresses for Wills. It sent notices to both addresses, Mecklenburg said.
IMPD does not typically inform the towing service when a vehicle has been involved in a homicide.
This year, at least 20 of the more than 200 homicides in Marion County happened inside or close to a vehicle, according to media and police reports. If those vehicles were towed, the impound lot automatically sends a bill to the vehicle owners or their loved ones before the vehicles are auctioned off after 30 days.
“In this case, we would not have known he was deceased,” Mecklenburg said. “At the time, we did know there's a detective hold, but we don't know why.”
Mecklenburg said Wills' Taurus was on the lot for 37 days before it was auctioned on Aug. 6 for $375. If Croom had wanted to claim the vehicle that day, towing, storing and other fees would have cost her $1,390.
Lt. Shane Foley, an IMPD spokesman, said a detective called Croom on July 1 and told her the vehicle was no longer being held for evidence and that she was free to claim the car.
Croom, overwhelmed at the time with grief over the sudden and violent death of her son, said she doesn't recall the conversation.
Foley said Croom was not contacted by a chaplain or a representative from IMPD's victim's assistance unit, either of which might have helped Croom understand the car needed to be claimed.
"Our thoughts remain with Justice Wills’ mother, Dana Croom, as with the families of all homicide victims," Foley said in an email to WRTV. "IMPD is aware Wills’ car was sold and there was, regrettably, a miscommunication with his mother about that before it occurred. IMPD constantly strives to improve our practices, communication with victims’ families, and communication with the public-at-large."
These impound fees extend to other crime victims. In 2018, WRTV reported on a woman who had to pay nearly $200 to recover her stolen car from the impound lot.
The company does waive fees for exceptional circumstances, but those waivers must be initiated through IMPD supervisors.
City-County Councilman Michael-Paul Hart believes the city can do better.
"She (Croom) didn't have a choice, right? Victims don't have a choice in any of these situations," Hart said.
Croom lives in Hart's council district. Hart said he plans to meet with IMPD officials and representatives from the towing service to find a way for the city to show more compassion. Hart is not sure how long it will take, but he vowed to try find a way for the city and tow company to stop billing crime victims.
"We should not have a system where we penalize the victim," Hart said.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.