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Commentary: 'See the cat? See the cradle?'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2010 - The title of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, "Cat's Cradle," alludes to a device that adults in simpler times sometimes used when trying to amuse children. It consists of a length of string interlaced between outstretched hands. When the performer wiggles his fingers, the crisscrossed sections of string appear to rock back and forth from one hand to the other.

Vonnegut employs the cat's cradle as a metaphor for the mind's susceptibility to be duped into seeing things that really aren't there. He explains the phenomenon in the following excerpt of dialog:

"No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's..."


"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."

The images exist not in the latticework of string, but in the mind that contemplates it. The only way to "see" them is to imagine them being there. To that extent, the homespun toy has a lot in common with the Great St. Louis Police Tow Scandal of '08 -- a general folly that recently came to a rather underwhelming conclusion.

I was skeptical of the case from the beginning. In a column that first ran on Aug. 6, 2008, in the Beacon, I pointed out that the Post-Dispatch had played the story as though its reporters had uncovered the Ramparts Division scandal. In that investigation, LA cops were accused of bank robbery, cocaine theft, brutality and planting evidence on criminal suspects.

By contrast, the St. Louis case revolved around a police chief's daughter wrecking a borrowed Dodge Neon. It seemed like pretty thin gruel -- quite literally, a scandal of subcompact proportions. Admittedly, the used car that brought the matter to light had originally been towed by the city police. If the cops were impounding autos owned by private citizens and then appropriating them for personal use, they were guilty of a serious abuse of the public trust.

But if the tow company owned the car, it could legally sell, lend or give it away as it saw fit. The gaping hole in the middle of the case was whether the tow contractor actually owned the vehicles in question and if so, how it came to possess them. To appreciate that issue, you have to understand the process of vehicle registration in this state.

Licensing a car in Missouri is not quite as involved as, say, acquiring a permit to operate a nuclear reactor, but it's close. When a citizen purchases a vehicle, he has 30 days to pay the sales tax on the transaction. During the interim, he can drive on temporary, or "paper" tags.

When the buyer arrives at the license office, he has to remit the sales tax due along with Personal Property Tax receipts to verify that he is current on that account as well. If he's delinquent on his Personal Property, he has to pay the overdue tax plus accrued interest and penalties. Additionally, he has to provide proof that the auto is properly insured.

If the car is five or more years old, the buyer also has to submit a form reflecting that it has passed a mechanical safety inspection. If it is to be licensed in an urban area, an auto emissions certificate is likewise required to guarantee that it will not unduly pollute the atmosphere.

Most people find the process to be an inconvenience fraught with unwelcome expense. For the poor, however, this annoying hassle amounts to an insurmountable obstacle to legal motoring because each of the above requirements entails a significant outlay of cash.

The economically disadvantaged thus often drive cars with bogus plates. These may be borrowed, stolen or simply taken off of one beater and bolted onto another. When these vehicles are towed, there's no way to determine legal ownership because the cars are not titled with the state.

The tow operator cannot release the auto without proper documentation, for fear that the legal owner might later materialize. After the vehicle has sat unclaimed, accumulating daily storage fees for a month or so, it becomes the lawful property of the tow company, which now has a problem of its own. To sell the car, the company needs a title. Getting one under these circumstances requires a paper chase that makes the burdensome licensing procedure look like a walk through the park.

With the above facts in mind, the final outcome of a two-year federal investigation becomes comprehensible. The two brothers who own the tow company each got a year and a day for income tax evasion. Those charges arose from the discovery of a cache of unreceipted cash found during the execution of a search warrant at their offices.

The sentencing judge allowed the brothers to serve staggered sentences so that one would be available to run the business while the other was in prison.

Q: If they were operating an inherently criminal enterprise as original reports implied, why would a federal judge help them to continue to do so?

A retired cop who ran the tow lot -- the alleged mastermind of the scheme -- got 10 months for mail fraud and bribery. A former city auto theft detective received 27 months for mail fraud. These two apparently figured out a shady way to shortcut the re-titling process and were dumb enough to use the U.S. mail to transport the necessary documents.

Press reports now hint that the inquest could have gone much further if the suspects had cooperated. That's probably true, because it's usually easier to convict defendants who want to assist in their own prosecution.

The simple fact is that none of the putative victims was able to demonstrate that a legally owned auto was purloined under color of law. The case turned out to be an all-bun-and-no-wiener affair because nobody was ever charged with, much less convicted of, stealing anybody's car.

As for rumors of a far-reaching conspiracy and widespread police corruption, U.S Attorney Richard Callahan told the press, ... What is provable has been charged and what is not provable has not. No additional criminal charges are anticipated."

Or as Vonnegut might have put it, "No damn cat, and no damn cradle."

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.