There wasn't one single crystallizing moment that spurred retired Cleveland police officer Billy Evans back into action. Just a thousand little nicks, like the time last month when Evans drove his 85-year-old mother around their old neighborhood near East 86th Street and Wade Park Avenue.
"There were three or four stolen cars sitting in a lot, not to mention all the other abandoned cars," says Evans, who retired in 1996 after 28 years as a Cleveland cop, 14 of them on the auto theft unit. "Things like that really tear a neighborhood down."
Those abandoned and gutted cars are an everyday part of life in pockets of Cleveland. Now the accumulated detritus has spurred Evans back to work. He's on a personal, albeit highly quixotic, crusade to clean up inner-city Cleveland.
And he's doing it one junker car at a time.
Four months ago, Evans paid $16,000 for a tow truck, rented office space on Euclid Avenue, and went to work towing abandoned cars under the name CATPAWS, which stands for Central Auto Theft Prevention at Work Services. For owners with a title, he will haul old cars free of charge to junkyards. He also tries to locate owners of cars that clearly have been stolen -- stripped of license plates and picked clean on the inside -- by cross-checking the vehicle identification number (VIN). If the owners consent, he'll tow those junkers too.
Armed with a photo album and hundreds of snapshots, Evans makes a strong case for his crusade as a one-man wrecking crew. Talking at lunch over a bowl of chicken noodle soup, he spins out a story about each stolen-car photo.
"This one here sat on Eddy Road for over a month. This car sat on Woodland and [East] 104th for a week. This one was on [East] 65th," he says, producing a photo of a tireless car with punched-out windows. "Cars like that should be towed."
Towing the abandoned vehicles would do more than remove eyesores from the city, Evans contends. It would also reduce the number of auto thefts, since abandoned cars make appealing targets for car thieves, who take the license plates and use them on other hot cars.
Evans, who lives in Wickliffe, is also lobbying state representatives and insurance companies like Progressive and Triple-A to help change Ohio's license plate laws. Evans would like to see the state adopt legislation similar to California and Texas, where license plates stay with the car throughout the vehicle's life and are not transferable. Such changes, Evans says, would make it easier for police to locate the owners of stolen cars.
Evans's dedication -- thus far, he has financed CATPAWS entirely out of his own pocket -- and tenacious, common-sense manner are swaying policymakers to his cause. Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman is one of the recent converts.
"He is a persistent man," Cimperman acknowledges. "He doesn't live in Cleveland, but it's so nice to hear someone talk about our city. I think it's commendable that he is trying to make an impact in his own way."
Cimperman agrees that abandoned cars are a nuisance and should be removed. But he isn't yet ready to sign off on Evans's request to use a vacant city-owned lot on the 4300 block of Chester Avenue, in Cimperman's ward. Several of the dozen cars Evans has towed since founding CATPAWS are currently on the lot, which Evans wants the city to let him use as a storage facility for vehicles that he thinks can be rehabilitated and sold.
"I'm not going to keep any junk cars on there," he says. "It would just be those that could be resold to someone else."
Still, Cimperman and companies in the neighborhood are leery of storing abandoned vehicles in the middle of Midtown Corridor. Kenneth Lurie, owner of Rysar Properties, which sits adjacent to the city-owned lot where Evans has been storing cars, says Evans is causing the same kind of problem for Lurie that the retired cop claims to be fighting.
"I'm not crazy about it. It's bad enough that the building next door is what it is," Lurie says, referring to a nearby abandoned building where homeless men gather. "Eventually this land and building will be developed, hopefully. If there's a bunch of cars, it just doesn't help. It looks horrible.
"I'm not going to go out of business because of it, but it sure would be nice if this was developed instead of a parking lot of abandoned cars. It doesn't look very good for my business. People come here all the time. I don't want people to be afraid to come to my building."
Such talk leaves Evans unbowed. Standing near a vacant lot littered with beer cans and fast-food wrappers on East 107th Street, he studies a maroon Chevy with missing license plates. Neighborhood residents say the car has sat abandoned for more than two weeks, and Evans, like a wrecked-car vigilante, is trying to have it towed.
He's had no luck getting the police to tow the car, but that doesn't discourage Evans. "When you're dealing with bank robberies and other emergencies, you don't have time to run VIN numbers," he says. If police don't tow the car, Evans will simply begin another red-tape ballet. He'll find the car's VIN, attempt to track down the owner, obtain the car's title, and tow the vehicle.
Lest anyone think that he actually enjoys towing cars, Evans stresses that he does it only as a last resort. He sees his efforts as one small attempt to rebuild the neighborhoods where he was born and raised and worked his entire life.
"I can show you where they're putting in $150,000, $200,000 houses, and you look down the street and you see cars chopped up," he says. "It just doesn't look good to have houses with these stripped cars lying around."
And who can argue with aesthetics like that?
Mike Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.