Casey Walgren loves his Mitsubishi Delica.
Built in the 1990s like a tank, it’s painted a dark teal and decked out with solar panels.
The Delica, short for “delivery car”, was first popularised in Japan and other parts of Asia among postal workers, produce deliverers and mini bus drivers.
And while they sell for pennies on the dollar in Japan now and are often only found in rural areas, they've become a cult collectors’ item among car geeks and van lifers in the United States, who praise the van’s durability and ‘90s vintage styling.
Walgren, 28, has lived in Oakland for three years and works as a systems administrator for a Livermore lab. He told SFGate that he wanted to convert the van into a camper for long-term living. Of course, he named it Delicia (rhymes with Alicia).
“She is very rare and means the world to me,” he said in a post on Reddit.
Walgren’s plans to refurbish the Delica and travel, naturally, fell through when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
He admits that he hung the Delica out to dry, leaving it in his garage for much of 2020. Work and life got in the way of his restoration project, he said.
Then it got stolen.
Car and other vehicle thefts aren’t entirely uncommon in Oakland. The pandemic worsened the issue.
An Oakland police report found that more motor vehicles have been stolen in the past two months of 2021 than in 2019 total. And the number of stolen vehicles – more than 1,000 – is mere dozens less than 2020’s total tally.
One report by San Francisco police found that while other crime went down, auto theft skyrocketed.
So when Walgren went outside on Jan 27 to walk his dogs, Rusko and Mona, he was disappointed – but not exactly surprised – that the van was missing.
“I usually had it parked here in my apartment; it’s gated and everything,” he said. “But I’ve had a friend who’s a full-time van lifer parked in my spot. I let him use my spot because it has all his stuff in there... so it doesn’t get broken into.”
At first, he thought it got towed. But he noticed the lock “busted out and laying on the ground”.
The worst part, he joked, was that he told his girlfriend a day earlier that he should move the van back into the garage.
“It’s kind of on me,” he said.
He filed a police report. An hour later, he took to Reddit.
Walgren, a frequent Reddit reader, posted on r/Oakland – something of a Hail Mary effort to see if the denizens of this virtual community could help.
And they went to work. The original post gained hundreds of comments, many of them reaching out at how cool Delicia is.
“I say this in the most positive way possible,” one commenter said, “she looks like a life-size Lego car!”
“This is like the most conspicuous car you could possibly steal,” said another.
Posters reported back en masse, Walgren said, and effectively took him through a wild, three-day long goose chase in a two-mile radius around his neighbourhood.
Someone would message him, reporting that the car was on International Ave. or by Fremont High; he would drive another vehicle and not find anything. Rinse and repeat.
“It was all within a two-mile radius in East Oakland... so I would just drive around all day – I drove into all the homeless encampments and everything – looking, looking for it.”
He figured out during his search that vans and other large automobiles are among those regularly stolen around the neighbourhood.
“People like to steal vehicles big enough to sleep in, then they part them out until there’s essentially nothing left,” he said. “And then they just do another one. It’s kind of a cycle that people run through sometimes.”
From Walgren’s vantage point, this ad-hoc team of investigators proved to be more helpful than Oakland police. At one point, he explained, an acquaintance was trailing behind the vehicle by happenstance. When that person called Oakland police, he explained, the police told him to stop following it. Walgren was understandably livid.
“Like, why wouldn’t they – why would they tell you to stop following it?” he said.
There are reasons for that, authorities told SFGate.
California Highway Patrolman Efrain Jauregui explained that even the best-intentioned rookie sleuths shouldn’t be “vigilantes... putting themselves in harm’s way”.
But hours after that close call, the CHP rang him up.
CHP Officer Sean Deise made a stop on Jan 29, three days after Walgren first reported the car as missing to police.
For the most part, it was a routine stop – except for one peculiar quirk with the Delica.
“The van is etched in with, like, a Dremel or something,” Walgren explained. “They don’t have a real VIN plate like we do in the United States and it’s less characters. I think it’s only 14 characters.”
For that reason, it is registered in Vermont – the state requires less symbols on license plate numbers, which makes it easier to register foreign cars in the state.
So when Deise noticed the plates, he was thrown off.
“I found the van in an area that’s common for stolen cars, and since it had a Vermont license plate,” he told SFGate, “I ran the license plate through our dispatch and it came back stolen.”
He pulled the vehicle over and detained its driver. CHP has arrested a suspect but no details were available.
Soon after, he caught a glimpse of just how well-known Delicia the van was in Oakland.
“There were passersby yelling, ‘I saw that van on Reddit! I'm glad you found that van!’” he said, to chuckles from his other officers. “I had no idea what they were talking about until I checked my phone.”
By the time he made the solo stop, two of his colleagues were already aware of the Internet-famous Delica.
Jauregui had spotted the van while scrolling through Reddit.
“I go on there for fun, just to look at memes and stuff,” he said. “Sometimes people post their stolen cars on there and ask people to help find them. [I’m] in the capacity to do that.”
He had seen the van while scrolling, and had shared it with Lane Childress, another CHP officer and fellow Redditor.
“It definitely isn’t a very common vehicle to see in the United States, but especially in this area, so it kind of stood out,” Childress explained.
Deise explained to SFGate that while they were able to locate Walgren’s van, the CHP does not have much jurisdiction over stolen vehicles in city limits.
“There are a lot of areas where, unfortunately, law enforcement is not able to enforce anything,” he said.
The car is back in Walgren’s possession and he’s filed an insurance claim over the theft. A bright side to the theft, he says, is that it sort of revitalised his drive to restore the car.
The person who stole the van, he said, gutted much of the van’s original parts – and the new additions he had installed, like a tablet GPS system and copper wiring for the solar setup. The ignition was also busted.
And while Walgren was pleased that so many people from disparate places came to help him locate the van, he noticed that Deise – the arresting officer – was not as excited as his colleagues about the discovery, but as he started to pull away from this chance interaction, he recalled, Deise stopped him.
“He said, ‘I didn’t realise this car was, you know, like, Internet-famous. Let me take a picture’.” – SFGate, San Francisco/Tribune News Service