(From issue 5518)

Miss Flanagan was on her way to the Cosy Café to have lunch with her good friend, Sergeant Reilly, when she noticed a man trying to park a van in a very tight space. It was obvious he didn’t see a bollard. Before Miss Flanagan could warn him, there was a metallic crunch as the bollard made a sizeable dent in the side of the van.

The driver, a small wiry man, didn’t seem too upset about it. “Not to worry – could have been worse,” was his only comment as he ran his hand over the damaged panel of the van.

Miss Flanagan continued on her way. She had noticed an advertisement on the side of the van: ‘Let us take care of all your plumbing needs. No job too small’.
She thought it odd that there was no name, address or telephone number to enable potential customers to make contact.

She quickly abandoned all thoughts about the van and its unskilful driver when she was abruptly halted in her tracks by a woman making a hasty exit from the Benford Bakery.
It was Karen Browne, who apologised profusely for not looking where she was going.
“I’m so sorry,” said Karen, “but I was completely distracted. You know my husband Richard’s obsession with cars.

“Well, this morning, he discovered that the back wheels of his new BMW had been stolen overnight. I needn’t tell you he has been shocked and outraged since. I don’t believe he would have been as upset if he had received news that his mother had died.”
Miss Flanagan offered her sympathy and suggested that the taking of the wheels might well be part of a prank carried out by some of his pals.

“That’s what I told him,” said Karen, “but it only caused more upset.”
By the time Miss Flanagan got to the Cosy Café, Sergeant Reilly had studied the menu so long, he could recite it by heart.

Apologising for being late, Miss Flanagan related her encounter with Karen Browne. Sergeant Reilly looked at Miss Flanagan in disbelief as if he expected her to tell him this was all a joke.
“O merciful god,” he said, “that’s the fourth car-related theft reported this morning.”

The menu was completely forgotten, as Sergeant Reilly pondered the implications of this spate of robberies. Then he said to Miss Flanagan, “We never know when we’re well off. When cars were being stolen, we lamented the fact that the manufacturers didn’t do enough to make their products more thief-proof.

Now they’ve done just that and the thieves are turning their attention to stealing car components such as GPS devices, DVD systems, rims, tyres and roof racks. They are even stealing the air-bags from cars.”

“What happens to these stolen parts,” asked Miss Flanagan.

“Many items are offered for sale on line and on the street,” said Sergeant Reilly. ‘In a lot of cases, buyers may think they are buying legitimate products rather than stolen parts.”
“From what you said,” remarked Miss Flanagan, “all the car thefts took place in the same part of town.”

‘That’s right,” said Sergeant Reilly, “and I suppose it’s no coincidence that it was the most affluent part of town. This wasn’t a casual, opportunistic crime – these thefts were carried out by professionals who were only interested in high-end products that will get a good price.”

“In every instance,” said Sergeant Reilly, “they cleaned up very thoroughly so there’s really nothing to go on. They were very careful to select targets that were isolated, giving them the maximum cover and the least possibility of being seen. The only way these criminals can be stopped is to catch them in the act.”

Miss Flanagan felt a wave of sympathy for Sergeant Reilly the next day when she heard there had been another spate of robberies of parts of cars.
Even though she was not personally involved in the investigation, Miss Flanagan couldn’t help thinking about the robberies.

She was fairly well convinced they were not carried out by locals, if only because she felt locals would have a difficult job disposing of the stolen items.
Like her friend, Sergeant Reilly, she believed the robbers were professionals from outside the area and that probably meant they remained in Benford after the first robbery. She felt they were unlikely to hang around following the second robbery. They might, in fact, be already far away from the scene of the crimes.

As Miss Flanagan was still thinking about the robberies, she noticed that the large white van was still parked close to the bollard which had damaged it. However, as she got closer, she began to have doubts as to whether it was the same van. It was the same make and model – a Ford Transit – but the advertisement had disappeared from its side.
Then she noticed that there was quite a large dent on the van which suggested it was the same one she had seen previously.

She wasn’t quite sure what the registration numbers were, but she remembered that there were two twos and two fours in the registration of the first van. She was rather surprised, therefore, to discover that this van had no two and only one four. It probably was a different van after all, she concluded. To add to the confusion, the wiry little man who had so carelessly parked the original van arrived and got into the driving seat. After searching for something for a few minutes, he got out and set off briskly up the town.
By now, Miss Flanagan’s suspicions were aroused. Something wasn’t quite right. She took a note of the registration number and immediately contacted Sergeant Reilly.
To her dismay, he wasn’t very interested when she told him what she had seen and suggested that the van ought to be investigated.

Miss Flanagan was not prepared to give up, however, and she finally got Sergeant Reilly to agree to check the registration number of the van.

About twenty minutes later, he re-emerged, with a rather sheepish grin on his face. “It seems,” he said rather apologetically, “your suspicions may be well- founded. The number you gave me belongs to a car that has been written off following an accident. It seems that the owner of this van has been up to no good,” said Sergeant Reilly. “I think it’s time we paid him a visit.”

After sitting in an unmarked car close to the white van for more than an hour, Miss Flanagan, Sergeant Reilly and Garda Malone were beginning to wonder if the owner of the van was ever going to appear.

Then a strange thing happened – a tall, broad-shouldered man arrived and sat into the van. He was immediately confronted by Sergeant Reilly who asked if he was the owner of the van.

“No,” he said defensively, “I only work for the owner.”
“What is the nature of the work you do,” asked Sergeant Reilly.
“Well, Mr. Morris, who owns the van, buys and sells things and I help.”
“Do you know where Mr. Morris is now?”
“He’s in town, but he shouldn’t be too long now.”
“Can you open the back of the van?”
“I don’t have a key.”

At that moment, Morris appeared from the other side of the van. It was obvious he hadn’t seen the reception committee. For a moment his eyes resembled those of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. He made a quick recovery and, in a composed voice, he asked, “Is there a problem?”

Sergeant Reilly asked if he was the owner of the van and when he confirmed that he was, Sergeant Reilly, in his best official voice, declared, “We have reason to suspect that this vehicle is equipped with false number plates. Can you explain how the plates belonging to a car that has been written off following an accident are now on your van?”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Morris replied that he had only bought the van a week previously and he was completely unaware of any problem with the number plates.
When asked what was in the van, he said he was a general dealer and the van contained some bits and pieces he had picked up in the past week and he hoped to sell them on at a profit.’

When asked to open the back of the van, there was a brief moment of panic, but he quickly regained his cool, opened the van and stepped aside to allow Sergeant Reilly to inspect the contents.

The van was filled with all kinds of items, including many that could have been taken during the raids on Benford cars, but, as Sergeant Reilly realised, it would take some time to  have these properly identified.

Sergeant Reilly climbed into the van to take a closer look and in a short time, he re-emerged holding two number plates in his hands.
Miss Flanagan was able to identify these as the ones that had been on the van when she had first seen it.
With this evidence, Sergeant Reilly arrested both Morris and his helper and brought them to the Garda station for questioning.

It didn’t take too long to establish that most of the items stolen from cars in Benford were in the white van.

As Sergeant Reilly explained later, the thieves had changed the number plates and erased the advertisement on the van in an attempt to disguise it following the first spate of robberies. They might very well have got away unnoticed if they had left the van as it was, but thanks to Miss Flanagan’s keen sense of observation, Morris and his helper were facing a long term behind bars.

Read Miss Flanagan Investigates every week in Ireland’s Own