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On the selling block: Bismarck auction gives insight into left-behind vehicles

A large number and variety of vehicles will be coming up for bid when the annual Bismarck Police auction is held Saturday, May 20, 2017. Vehicles are numbered and vary from pickups (lawn mower included), boats and even vintage sedans. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — About two weeks after a massive snowstorm hit Bismarck in December, Brandon Matties lost his car to the police.

His broken-down 1994 Chevy Blazer was parked outside his home on East Rosser Avenue, a major arterial route.

Matties thought he could get the car fixed and moved after his next McDonald's paycheck, but, as plows tried to widen city streets, police gave him 24 hours.

With no money to tow the car, he left it.

"It was a pretty bad deal," said Matties, 22, sitting on his splintered porch and holding onto his 1-year-old baby, James.

Now the gray Blazer is up for sale at the city auction.

A dumpster diggers paradise, the auction also is a graveyard of valuables lost to bad luck. The property left behind inside them — soda bottles, guns, raccoon pelts — a memento to personal crises and travels cut short.

About 240 cars will be sold off the gravel impound lot near the landfill Saturday, May 20, at the Bismarck City Auction. Most were towed off the streets — it's illegal to leave a car parked on the street in the same place for more than 48 hours. Some others were pulled in during snowstorms, involved in crashes or seized as evidence in crimes.

Bismarck Police Lt. Steve Scheuer said police typically enforce the 48-hour tow law when neighbors call in. It's a nuisance ordinance, he explained: "You park a car and you just leave it; next thing you know, the streets become a dumping ground for vehicles."

After a big snows, police peruse the city for abandoned vehicles that are preventing plows from clearing wide paths through busy roads, such as Rosser Avenue. Often, police will wait multiple days after the snow, as in Matties' case.

"We want to give people ample opportunity to get their cars out," he said.

The Bismarck Police Department sends letters to the last registered owner of each car in advance of the auction. But more than half of people never pick up their vehicles, Scheuer said.

Most of the car owners come from Bismarck-Mandan, but several were from as far away as Denver, Baton Rouge, La., and Fergus Falls, Minn., an open records request for letters showed.

"It comes down to how much is this car really worth," Scheuer said. "Is it really worth my time to fork over three, four, five hundred, $1,000 for a car that might only be worth a couple hundred?"

Owners of impounded cars must pay a towing fee of $120 to $170, a $30 impound fee and $10 for each day the car sits, Scheuer said.

For Matties, the fees added up too fast. He bought the SUV from a friend for $400 in June, he said.

"It's not like it was super-expensive or anything," he said. But it got him to work.

A part broke down about a week prior to the snow. Was it the fuel line or the fuel pump? And he didn't have the money to tow or fix the car when the police left the notice. He tried calling authorities, but was told it would be impounded.

"If they just would've heard me out that it was broken, that I had no way to move it," he said, gesturing to the alley by his house. "Even if they would've helped me out just to get a tow truck here to move it around the corner to the side of the house. I would've rather done that."

By the time he could have afforded to get the car out of the impound lot — at his next paycheck — it would have cost him $500 to $550, he said. More than he paid for the car in the first place.

Matties, who lives with five roommates in a small house with peeling paint, still hasn't managed to replace the vehicle. He usually carpools to work.

Towing cars is no big boon for the police department, either. The city will use the auction to recoup $75,000 in towing fees paid to private companies last year, and any extra money goes to the general fund, Scheuer said.

"Ideally, we would want everybody to get their cars off the street," said Scheuer, adding that an officer needs to accompany every towed vehicle to the lot. "It's really time-consuming on us to have to tow it from a point all the way up here ... For one vehicle, you're looking at 45 minutes to an hour."

Of course, some of the cars at the lot have darker histories, seized in a drug bust or stolen from their owners.

A white 2000 Chevy pickup taken from Farmers Union Oil in Kenmare sat in the impound for about a year until last week, when the insurance company claimed it, Scheuer said.

Waiting for the salvage yard, the pickup bed held a red gas can, music speakers, golf clubs, clothes and a torn-apart hard drive. Within the cab, the stereo was missing, a leather jacket was strewn across the front seat and a Vise Grip was holding onto the car window opener.

"Someone was drinking and took it for a joy ride," said Farmers Union manager Jamie Hoggarth.

Other cars have even more mysterious stories.

A red van burned through still contains the residue of someone's life: cans of food, a boxed set for Yahtzee and piles of clothes. In another beige van, a raccoon or badger pelt is lying on top of the foot pedals. A bronze car has a registration sitting on the passenger seat — for a woman who died four years ago.

Then there's the stuff of legend: A sex toy found by police in a car years ago. And a turkey that went to liquid before the car was cleaned out.

Police clear out the valuable stuff to sell independently at auction and the illegal stuff to discard, but most everything else comes with the car.

Though the car impound may hit hard on people already down on their luck, the auction itself can be a way for those same people to win their cars back.

When Brandon Williams got arrested during the summer of 2010, he, too, lost his car to the city auction. By the time he went to pick up his 1998 "baby blue" Ford Taurus, the police were charging $800, he said.

"No way was I paying that," said Williams, 26, drinking a beer outside his mobile home in east Bismarck last week.

So, he drove his dad's car around for a few months then he showed up at the auction, bid on his car and won: For $350.