By Lori Comstock New Jersey Herald
HAMPTON — Much like the re-emergence of a long-lost loved one, the return of a stolen car years later can stun anyone when it comes back to its lawful owner.
Tony Peldunas, a Hampton resident, recently had that happen to him when his 1965 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, which disappeared from in front of his house in 1981, was found and returned to him last month after nearly 36 years.
When Peldunas was in his late 20s and early 30s living in Kearny, he usually parked his Corvette safely in his garage.
He purchased the maroon vehicle in the late 1970s. It was in need of some work — Peldunas said it was “beat up and chopped up” — and he spent his free time tinkering with the car, bringing it back to life.
His neighbor, a high school student, helped restore the car, with Peldunas giving him pointers along the way. Peldunas even let the student take the car to his senior prom.
In the summer of 1981, Peldunas, then 31 years old, came home but found his garage blocked by friends and family who had parked in the driveway.
Not thinking much of it, Peldunas parked the Corvette in the street for the night.
When he woke the next morning, it was pouring rain, he recalled, so he raced outside to get his Corvette into the garage, and when he stepped out the door, his heart sank.
“The car was gone,” Peldunas said.
After he called the Kearny Police Department, an officer stopped by his house and told him that six sports cars had been stolen in the town overnight.
“He went on to tell me the way they do it. All professionals, they steal a big four-door car, load it up with six or seven people and drive around town at night, and when they see one, they drop a guy off and he steals it. They see another and drop off another guy until they are all done,” Peldunas said.
Peldunas said after a week without any word from the police, he gave up hope on ever seeing his beloved Corvette again.
“The car is gone; I’ll never see it again,” Peldunas said he thought at the time. “By the time I woke up (the morning it was stolen), it was probably halfway down south somewhere on a trailer.”
Forgetting about the car and purchasing other Corvettes over the years — although not quite as meaningful as his ’65 Corvette — Peldunas married and moved to Sussex County.
He took up residence in a rural part of Hampton, hidden from the bustling city life. He continued his deep love of restoring old cars, but went about his daily life.
About two months ago Peldunas was at work when he received a call from his wife, Donna, that was a bit out of the ordinary.
“She tells me, ‘You are not going to believe what I am going to tell you,'” Peldunas recalled. “I thought the house burned down or something.”
She had received a phone call from the Kearny Police Department telling her that his 1965 Chevrolet Corvette, the one missing for 36 years, had been recovered in a small town near Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Peldunas was told detectives from the Kearny Police Department had to wipe away the dust as they dug through the department’s file room, searching for the police report from many years ago.
Because the phone number on the report was of his former residence in Kearny, Peldunas said a detective starting going through phone books to try to track him down.
They eventually got in touch with Peldunas’ nephew, who directed the detective to the right place.
Peldunas was put in touch with a motor vehicle officer in North Carolina who explained to him what had happened.
“Somebody tried to trade the car in at a car lot. It was all re-done, and apparently the owner of the lot was really into these types of classic cars. He saw the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) plate had been tampered with,” Peldunas said. “He noticed it had been double stamped.”
The motor vehicle police, as Peldunas explained, went to the lot and confiscated the car, sanding down a spot on the car where the original VIN number would be located, and found it matched Peldunas’ stolen car.
Peldunas, with help from a few good friends, borrowed a truck and car trailer and drove to North Carolina about a month ago with his friends around 5 p.m. right after work. He got to North Carolina at 6 a.m., loaded the car up and left.
The car, Peldunas said, was so unrecognizable he didn’t believe it was his.
“Honestly, the first time I saw it, it didn’t hit home to me that it was my car because nothing looked the same,” he said. “I thought out loud, ‘Maybe if I saw a little bit of burgundy paint on it, I’d believe it.'”
Once home with the car and at a friend’s garage, Peldunas stopped by to look at the car. A mechanic lifted up the firewall under the hood, and a piece of paint was chipped off, displaying a tiny bit of burgundy paint.
“Then it hit home: Yup, that was my car,” he said. “It was the last thing I ever expected.”
What once was an original 1965 maroon Corvette Stingray was now a super performance Grand Sport Stingray complete with a 500-horsepower V-8 engine. The odometer reads 320 miles.
The interior is that of a race car, with racing harnesses in place of seat belts and switches to turn on the ignition instead of a key start.
The car’s exterior is painted silver with a royal blue racing stripe following the car from bumper to fender.
The estimated value of the car, according to the police report, Peldunas said, is nearly $30,000, a dramatic difference from when Peldunas purchased it in the late 1970s.
“I bought it for less than $2,000 but probably put about $6,000 into it at the time,” he said.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, it isn’t uncommon for a Chevrolet Corvette to be stolen; reports indicate that more than one in 10 has been stolen over the past three decades.
The Corvette made its first appearance in 1953. It became the pace car at the 1978 Indianapolis 500, one of the largest and most popular races held during Memorial Day weekend, and repeated that duty nine more times, more than any other model of car.
Dubbed “America’s sports car,” the Corvette is often sought by thieves, according to the NICB. Between 1981 and 2011, 90,427 Corvettes were reported stolen in the United States.
New Jersey is the fifth highest state for Corvette theft in that 30-year span with 5,287 stolen. In 1981, the year Peldunas’ car was stolen, 375 Corvettes were stolen in the state.
Corvette theft, like car theft in general, has been declining over the years as cars get harder to steal. A New York Times article noted that engine immobilizer systems, adopted by manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, make it essentially impossible to start a car without the ignition key.
“Criminals generally have not been able to circumvent the technology or make counterfeit keys,” the article stated.
Though happy to have his car back, Peldunas wishes he could know where it was for all these years.
“My wife said, ‘If only the car could talk, what stories it would tell’,” he said.
Original article by Lori Comstock/NJ Herald: http://www.njherald.com/20170529/corvette-stolen-36-years-ago-finds-its-way-back-to-hampton-man#
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.