Stolen car returned within minutes. Why?
October 2, 2007 4:59 AM   Subscribe

Can you help solve a somewhat bizarre and mysterious crime?

Here's the background story: My friend owns a late-model mini-van, in very good condition. She had the van parked on the basement 3rd level (B3) of a parking garage under the Tokyo Dome Hotel, which is adjacent to the Tokyo Dome, a sports arena in downtown Tokyo (seats 55,000 people), as well as an amusement park and a small shopping mall. Here's a link to a map showing the position of the hotel, the Dome and surroundings.

The hotel was fully booked for a Japanese holiday period, and only registered guests at the hotel would be able to gain access to the hotel parking garage. My friend, who lives in Tokyo, was able to park there that day, however, as she has a relative working at the hotel who gave her a pass. She and her family came to the hotel for dinner, arriving around 4PM. She returned to the garage at around 9PM the same evening. She went to retrieve her car, but couldn't find it on the B3 level where she'd parked. Wondering if she'd confused her parking place, she went one level up, to B2. There she found her van. Aside from the fact that it was on the wrong floor, she noticed that it had been parked front-end in, whereas she had backed her van into her parking place on the B3 level. The car was locked: nothing seemed remiss, there were no traces that it had been broken into, and nothing in the car (baby seat, miscellaneous kid's toys, etc.) was missing.

My friend went first to hotel personnel, who called the police. Police arrived at the hotel and inspected the car. They dusted for fingerprints, they took her fingerprint samples to compare. They questioned her about all details, speaking with her from around 10PM til around 1AM. They told her they had dusted for fingerprints on the steering wheel and gear shift, and had found nothing.

The surveillance tapes (which police showed to my friend) show a man driving out of the garage in her mini-van at 6:30PM . Tapes also show a man who is dressed identically but who appears to be a different person (this also according to police who viewed the tapes) returning only 12 minutes later, at 6:42PM. The tapes show the man driving with the palms of his hands and/or his forearms, so as not to leave prints. And although the weather was very hot that day the man (men) were wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt over a t-shirt, plus a baseball cap. Police told my friend that the shirt tail would've been used to work the gearshift, so as not to leave prints. This man had the kind of pass that a hotel guest would have, in order to leave the garage in a vehicle, and return in a vehicle. This pass is also necessary to gain entrance into the hotel building from the garage. This man was also seen in surveillance tapes shot inside the hotel.

The street layout of the hotel/Dome complex requires a driver to take a rather roundabout route, circling the Dome, in order to get out of the complex and onto any other city streets. This route takes approximately 10 minutes. The car was gone from out of the garage for only 12 minutes, so it's safe to say it didn't go very far!

One last thing: the Tokyo cops who talked to my friend told her that these guys seemed very professionsl and then they told her that they'd probably never be caught!

Why would someone steal a car out of a garage, keep it for such a short time, then have it returned so quickly (by another person in identical clothing)?
posted by flapjax at midnite to Grab Bag (58 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the first obvious reason would be to commit another crime with a random vehicle that can't be connected back to them.
posted by shinynewnick at 5:12 AM on October 2, 2007

This is great (as a mystery, I'm sure it's less than great for your friend)... I hope it gets figured out eventually. Some ideas:
  • Duplicating the plates for some other nefarious purpose? Not sure why you'd need to physically have them to do so, or how it could be done so quickly.
  • Intended to steal another (specific) car, realized their mistake, botched returning it, and fled before they could further incriminate themselves?
  • Could they have used the van in some other crime? Do some sort of theft or subterfuge, jump in the van and escape back to the parking garage?

posted by phrontist at 5:14 AM on October 2, 2007

Oooh, intriguing! Clearly the theft isn't the real crime here, and I think the possibility of there being two individuals is the key.

Here's my guess:

Man number 1, the one who drove the van out of the hotel, needs an alibi to enable him to commit some crime. Man 1 checks into the hotel, goes to his room, and pretends to go to sleep. Some time later, he gets changed out of his respectable business suit, and sneaks out, making sure to wear a baseball cap to obscure his face in CCTV footage. He slips down to the car park (probably without passing reception), steals a vehicle (so his own car remains on site at all times), and drives out. He meets an accomplice (of similar build and appearance) at a prearranged site, swaps outer clothes, and heads off to commit whatever heinous deed he has planned. Man 2 checks out early morning, past different staff, and no-one is any the wiser. The hotel records will show that Man 1 stayed there all night and couldn't possibly have been over the other side of town causing mayhem.
posted by tomsk at 5:20 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

I find it strange that they would think up such an elaborate scheme to erase their tracks yet park the car on a different floor when they put it back. Surely if they knew they would only need it for a couple of minutes they would make sure no-one else would be parking in that spot during that time. By placing traffic cones or something.
posted by Skyanth at 5:31 AM on October 2, 2007

Skyanth: Maybe they forgot to communicate that vital piece of information in the heat of the moment (or else the second driver screwed up or got scared and took the first spot - or maybe the old spot had been taken by another car). Without that mistake, the crime might never have come to light.
posted by imposster at 5:35 AM on October 2, 2007

Two thoughts:
One it was a practice run for a real crime. If they get caught stealing a car, it's much less than a different offense.

Two- did she leave her keys?
posted by filmgeek at 5:42 AM on October 2, 2007

Surely you now need to find out if any significant crimes were committed in the area in that time window.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:43 AM on October 2, 2007

Response by poster: did she leave her keys?

filmgeek: Sorry, that's some key (no pun intended) info I left out, but no, she didn't leave her keys. They were also pro enough to get into and start her car WITHOUT her keys. And when she found her car, it was locked! They had politely locked the door behind them when they returned it!

game warden: I reckon it'd be impossible to find out about other crimes committed in the area within that time window. Police in Japan are much, much more tight-lipped and opaque than their counterparts in the western world: any inquiries made by an average citizen (like my friend) regarding other crimes that might've taken place would be met with, well, astonishment on the part of police here.

It's also very telling that the cops would've told her, as I mentioned above, that these guys will probably never be caught. Japanese police are infamously inept, so much so that even they know it. In such a tiny country, for example, three perpetrators of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack of 1995 are still at large! You see their pictures posted here and there around Tokyo, to this day.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:05 AM on October 2, 2007

Are you sure it's the same van? Cause they've got a great getaway vehicle now that'll pin your friend for a crime rather than them.
posted by jwells at 6:18 AM on October 2, 2007

What about an initiation of some sort? Or, like in Fight Club, designed just to mess with someone?

Why are "Japanese police are infamously inept"? I didn't know that. What makes this so?
posted by letahl at 6:22 AM on October 2, 2007

Could it be simpler? Could the man have an identical car with an identical key cut, went down a level from where he was parked, drove off in your friend's car and said "shit! This isn't my car! How embarassing!" and quietly returned it to where he thought he got it and then wiped it down, after being careful not to leave additional prints after he noticed?

It's just odd that he returned the car so quickly, and even odder that he put in the same location but one level up. If he was just casually going to his car, he might not have noted how it was parked. I often can't remember the more rote parts of leaving the garage at work.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:25 AM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

Is she sure something hasn't been _added_ to her car? Has the car been thoroughly searched?

Or maybe the car was searched while it was out of the garage -- maybe the car was "borrowed" previously, something added to it, then "delivered" through the incident you describe. The guys wouldn't want the extraction of whatever it was to be captured on camera.

Also, if it was me, I'd have the brakes checked.
posted by amtho at 6:30 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How about this hypothetical scenario:

The criminal(s) have access to the 'back end' of the Tokyo Dome complex - maybe one of them has a job in there somewhere. They are attempting to steal something from in there, but want to minimize their chance of being tracked down later via CC video footage.

So ... they steal a vehicle from close by, use it to drive in and load up the loot from the Dome complex, then drive out. Somewhere on a nearby street, maybe right there in that complicated mess of roads under there, they make a quick transfer of the goods to their own vehicle, which is then driven away.

They return the stolen vehicle to the hotel parking lot. Mission accomplished ... their own vehicle never gets shot by any of the video cameras at the Dome loading dock.
posted by woodblock100 at 6:30 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

obviously they used it for some nefarious purpose.

the real question is why would they expose themselves to so much risk by bringing it back to the scene of the crime instead of just parking it on the street?

maybe hoping she wouldn't notice?
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 6:36 AM on October 2, 2007

seconding amtho. my first thought was that your friend had better check for tracking units, cameras/microphones, or even more sinister alterations...

in that short a time span, planting something in the car is among the easiest jobs to pull (i imagine). and their guarding their prints and using decoys points to some serious effort.

does your friend have any serious enemies or have access to highly guarded items or information?

totally get the car swept. Please keep us posted!
i'd also attribute the wrong floor to a goof-up.
posted by prophetsearcher at 6:42 AM on October 2, 2007

The most bizarre thing about the whole ordeal is that the cops performed a 3 hour interrogation, investigation of close circuit tapes, and dusted for prints when nothing was even stolen!! In the US the cops probably wouldn't have even shown up for a non-crime. Typically cops show up when a house is ransacked, say tough luck and go on their way 20 minutes later.
posted by JJ86 at 6:46 AM on October 2, 2007

I'm amazed that the cops even bothered with this crime. Can you imagine calling the NYC police and telling them that your car has been moved while you were gone? Ha! If the Japanese police are inept, they at least get points for trying!
posted by Banky_Edwards at 6:49 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Can I ask why are you assuming it is crime related and not a mistake?

Was it a Toyota van? A lot of them will work with the same key (strange but true, I have three friend with three Toyota vans, and they can take each others' keys). Maybe there are other non-Toyota models that work like this as well. It wouldn't be unimaginable that someone thought it was their van, realized the mistake, and had a coworker park it in an available spot while the mistake maker was trying to find their real van.

Another possibility further to the above (and makes more sense with the identical clothes) is that they were valets at a nearby restaurant that uses the garage, confused the van, took it because the key worked, and another valet brought it back after the mistake was realized.

I assume the video clip was fairly short-I don't think that the palming the wheel necessarily means the driver was trying not to not leave prints. Lots of people palm the wheel at one time or another, especially in a garage where you may be making a lot of tight turns.

What's amazing is that the police spent so much time on this when nothing was damaged or missing.
posted by quarterframer at 6:53 AM on October 2, 2007

Response by poster: Are you sure it's the same van?

Definitely the same van. Full of her children's stuff (she's a mother of 2, one is a baby), etc.

Why are "Japanese police are infamously inept"? I didn't know that. What makes this so?

I'm sorry, letahl, but it's too big a subject to get into here, and too unrelated, essentially, to the question at hand, and it's also my bedtime!

Many thanks to all answerers so far. This is great. By the way, your answers will be explained in translation (by my bilingual wife) to the friend whose van was swiped. I really appreciate the time you folks are taking to think about this and answer, and I know my friend will appreciate it a lot as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 AM on October 2, 2007

This is one of my favorite questions, EVER!

I think tomsk has it. It seems as though the attempt to return the van to its original position was a botched effort to completely avoid detection. No one would have even checked the CCTV if your friend hadn't reported this strange occurance. It's kind of funny that these guys flubbed such a simple, key point in their 'operation'.

It's also somewhat telling. If the Japanese police told you that these guys looked pretty professional, but the Japanese police are famously inept, then they might have lauded these guys as pros to save some face when they don't catch the perps. The fact that the 'criminals' made such a humorous mistake is testament to their not being very professional, and despite the seemingly inscrutible purpose of their crime it may have just been a scheme to cheet on one of their wives or something.

The keyless break-in and driving of the van seems to hint at a higher level of professionalism, but it's not as if one can't find that kind of info on the internet, however.

This question is going to make frequent re-appearances in my mental movie for weeks!
posted by Pecinpah at 7:01 AM on October 2, 2007

I like the idea they were using it to transport something larger out of the complex. They just needed to get it out of the camera range to xfer to their own waiting vehicle. Was anything moved around in the back of the van?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:06 AM on October 2, 2007

one of my neighbors came home to find a man in her garage. he had been "borrowing" one of her cars for a couple months, a few hours at a time, to do drug deals. apparently he drew the line at car theft because he always brought it back. her only previous clue was that he once left a pair of gloves in her car, and she thought those belonged to a friend.

although 12 minutes is pretty fast for committing another crime, it does happen.
posted by domino at 7:15 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

quarterframer: Another possibility further to the above (and makes more sense with the identical clothes) is that they were valets at a nearby restaurant that uses the garage, confused the van, took it because the key worked, and another valet brought it back after the mistake was realized.

This has my vote. Occam's Razor and all. It should be easy enough to hang around the restaurants and see what uniforms their valets wear.
posted by desjardins at 7:25 AM on October 2, 2007

Well, you know that at most they could only get 6 minutes away from the garage before returning. So whatever they did, they did it within a mile or two of the garage (at most).
posted by doctor_negative at 7:28 AM on October 2, 2007

They may have been looking for a different year of the model.

I have a coworker whose 1992 Toyota Corolla is often stolen and returned as it's being mistaken for a 1991 which according to a Chicago Police Officer who dealt with one of his cases has an essential operational component that sells for a particularly high price in the international black market. (I'm not certain of the exact years, but there is some cut-off in the presence of this component.)

If the thieves' interest was in a part that your friend's didn't have upon further inspection, they may have just returned it to avoid the greater baggage of the greater crime.
posted by pokermonk at 7:33 AM on October 2, 2007

Thinking over my previous suggestion that the vehicle was used in a heist at the Dome complex ... it's not necessary to assume that the crime was committed elsewhere.

You say the returning driver had a hotel parking pass, and was seen in video inside the hotel. Well there you are - something was stolen from inside the hotel. The guy registered as a guest (presumably under false identity), performed the theft, took the goods down to the garage, stole a vehicle to get them off the property, did an exchange with a waiting accomplice, then just drove the van back inside. He would probably have preferred to just slide the van back into the same parking slot, but if that was taken, it's no big problem, just park somewhere else ... Mission accomplished.

If I were the police, I would check the hotel register and look real closely at any guests who may have checked out in the period immediately after the van was returned ...
posted by woodblock100 at 7:44 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: quarterframer: Another possibility further to the above (and makes more sense with the identical clothes) is that they were valets at a nearby restaurant that uses the garage, confused the van, took it because the key worked, and another valet brought it back after the mistake was realized.

desjardins: This has my vote. Occam's Razor and all. It should be easy enough to hang around the restaurants and see what uniforms their valets wear.

I disagree. The style of dress doesn't sound like "uniforms" at all. (Unbuttoned shirt over t-shirt, baseball cap.) And, why wouldn't the maker of an honest mistake caused by the farfetched circumstance of the key fitting just explain what happened and apologize, in a note? And, it should be easy to determine whether the garage is even used by any restaurants for valet parking. Plus, to leave the garage, the "valet" would have had to use a pass issued to the restaurant, not a hotel guest pass as you indicate was used. And finally, if they were valets, and they did make this mistake, the other minivan should be on tape leaving the garage right after the "return" of your friend's minivan.

I think your friend simply misremembered how and where she parked the car, and coincidentally an identical car was driven in and out of the garage. That coincidence is much likelier than the likelihood of identical keys, and explains the entire episode.
posted by beagle at 7:57 AM on October 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

Maybe the person owns the exact same type of vehicle, got confused, drove it out of the parking lot, realized their mistake and returned it. Sometimes someone else's keys work in the same type of vehicle?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:13 AM on October 2, 2007

I think your friend simply misremembered how and where she parked the car, and coincidentally an identical car was driven in and out of the garage.

Yeah, I gotta go with Occam's Razor on this one too. That or the guy mistaking the van for his and his key working.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2007

likewise, why would the valet drivers use the car in a manner which left absolutely no fingerprints?
posted by mulligan at 8:25 AM on October 2, 2007

Mayor Curley writes "Could it be simpler? Could the man have an identical car with an identical key cut, went down a level from where he was parked, drove off in your friend's car and said 'shit! This isn't my car! How embarassing!'"

This has happened to me though I moticed before I drove off. Someone parked the exact same make, model and colour of van next to mine in a parking lot one spot closer to the store. I left the store and went to what appeared to be my truck, got in and only noticed something was wrong when the primer button for my LPG system was missing. A real WTF! moment. After several seconds of disorientation I started noticing other stuff (Hey that's not my radio. Where'd those cigarette burns come from. Where the hell is my parking placard?!). I looked over and low and behold there is my car in the next spot over.

Even wierder is it turns out I know the owner of the clone van.

It would explain why your van was on a different floor. The guy notices he's not in the right vehicle so he drives back to where he parked his van and just swaps them because he has no idea where he got the wrong van from. The valet thing would explain the appearance differences. Or the guy could just look different because he's all flustered from having just stolen a car.
posted by Mitheral at 8:41 AM on October 2, 2007

In a nation where disgraced CEOs are virtually expected to commit suicide, I can see valets going through some effort to keep a car in the same condition as they got it in. The ball cap could be just to prevent their hair from falling in it. Elbows, palms, and shirt tails to prevent finger prints and smudges.

I've used valets where the uniformed person we give a key to just passes it off to a squad of drivers who are dressed in khakis and the same shirt. Perhaps these folks carry a ball cap as well. The 10 minute drive took 12 because they were being cautious. Etc. It fits well, except for the hotel not recognizing them. If they've a valet commonly operating there they'd recognize them, but then it might have been a favor to a special client who lent them the pass.
posted by jwells at 8:41 AM on October 2, 2007

I initially suspected a valet at work here as well. Valets (at least in the US) always back in to spaces and, like someone mentioned above, I've encountered some cars whose keys work among other identical models. So I could see a rushed valet picking out the wrong car and then sheepishly returning it front-end in. And if the hotel was very busy, perhaps the valets were using runners that had more lax uniform requirements.

But I have no explanation for the no-fingerprint behavior (uh, maybe he just ate ribs and didn't want to get the guests' cars dirty?). Nor can I explain why the hotel wouldn't admit to the mistake once the police started examining surveillance tape.

On preview: The 10 minute drive took 12 because they were being cautious.

In the valet scenario, I'm sure there'd be some time wasted when the guest explains that it isn't their car and the valets scramble to figured out what happened.

posted by mullacc at 8:54 AM on October 2, 2007

Regarding the lack of prints: this is not an indication of criminals or valets trying to avoid leaving prints; many crime scenes don't yield usable prints, and most steering wheels and gearshifts don't have a smooth surface from which a good print could be taken. Neither does palming the wheel in a momentary video shot indicate intent to avoid prints -- some people just drive that way.

Usually the simplest explanations are the likeliest; I'm sticking with: friend forgot where she actually parked; somebody else happened to drive the same model out of the garage and back in, for whatever reason. This also explains your clue: "This man was also seen in surveillance tapes shot inside the hotel." If he was a hotel valet, they'd be able to identify him. So, he's a guest or visitor. The question is, did the cops check whether an identical, or very similar, car was still in the garage, or was one driven back out again later on?
posted by beagle at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2007

How is the pass utilized? Person or machine based? Did the police check either?
posted by jwells at 9:44 AM on October 2, 2007

I hate to be the one to ask this question, but did you actually see any of the evidence first-hand, or is this your friend telling you the story?

Is this friend prone to forgetfulness or telling tales?
posted by SteveInMaine at 9:55 AM on October 2, 2007

Mayor Curley writes "Could it be simpler? Could the man have an identical car with an identical key cut, went down a level from where he was parked, drove off in your friend's car and said 'shit! This isn't my car! How embarassing!'"

clearly possible -- on the eve on my big college trip to Europe I managed to LOCK my pack in a random strangers car. He was parked directly in front of my apartment and had a very similar make to my sister's toyota. For some reason the trunk was ajar (making me even surer in my convictions), and I threw my bag in there and slammed it locked before my sister made it down the stairs.

fortunately he was having coffee in the nearby ethiopian restaurant and I was able to get my bag back. The situation seemed to require more than your usual amount of coincidence, but it certainly did not stop it from happening.
posted by fishfucker at 10:03 AM on October 2, 2007

Usually in these "something's different but nothing's been stolen" cases, the occam's razor approach is the most reliable. She forgot where she parked her car. (or there was a slow leak :P)
posted by tehloki at 10:03 AM on October 2, 2007

But I have no explanation for the no-fingerprint behavior

Except that the cops didn't really dust for fingerprints. Or there were no fingerprints because nobody else drove her car.

You have to choose what to believe or not believe here. We are hearing what flapjax says about what their friend says about what the police said. There's many possible ways that the actual "facts" of this case got twisted in the telling. The simplest solution is almost always the right one:

Your friend had a memory lapse and panicked and called the police. I might believe your friend if, say, she had found something left in the car. But she didn't. And she may not be likely to admit at this point, out of shame, that she made a mistake.
posted by vacapinta at 10:06 AM on October 2, 2007

Best answer: The valet explanation seems unlikely, both because of the pass and the fact that they weren't recognized as valets that use the hotel.

And thieves using the car for a hotel related crime doesn't make a lot of sense, either, unless the van model is common enough and easy enough to break into or use a key they have that they could assume that a likely vehicle would be found.

The fact that the vehicle is returned makes me think it was specifically targeted at your friend. If the thieves stole the wrong van by mistake I think most would be inclined to just ditch the vehicle on the street instead of compounding the stress by attempting to return it.

So the question is who knew your friends were going to be at the hotel at that particular time? The relative that gave her the pass seems like a good start. I think a key had already been made; at least in the US all you need is the VIN, readable from the outside at the base of the windshield, and most dealers can make the key for it. A bribe or a friend working there bypasses the need to actually own the vehicle. That makes me think something was done to the car (like bugged). I'd probably do a very thorough search of the car or have one done, trying to figure out what had been done.
posted by 6550 at 10:07 AM on October 2, 2007

What is completely amazing about this story to me is the behavior of the police (as noted by JJ86, Banky_Edwards, and quarterframer). These extremely "tight-lipped and opaque" officials (and this description accords with everything I've ever read or heard about Japanese police) spent three hours with your friend, telling her details about the investigation which don't seem to have any bearing on any testimony that might ever be demanded of her, showing her surveillance tapes from only a few hours earlier(!), and finally telling her that no further effort at apprehending any criminal would be made.

Some level of illegal drug activity and prostitution would seem to be almost inevitable in a large urban hotel associated with a sports complex, in Japan and in most of the rest of the world, and I suspect it is merely the professional exercise of the better part of valor by hotel management (as well as the police!) to reach an accommodation with them rather than attempting to achieve inevitably Pyrrhic victories over them, especially if they are under the control of organized crime, as is likely in Japan.

But the first requirement of such an accommodation for a respectable hotel, like this one surely must be, is that it not impinge upon the lives or awareness of respectable guests, like your friend. This requirement was 'flung down and danced upon' here.

I'd guess the police talked to your friend for so long and in such a way to show her how seriously they are taking this, and to gather material for a subsequent meeting, perhaps with hotel security or some other instrumentality with the power to forestall blunders of this kind, to tell them to get their act together or face consequences.

I can't see why anyone would need a van to provide drugs for a hotel patron, but it's easy to imagine it being used to go collect a prostitute and bring him or her to the hotel for an assignation.
posted by jamjam at 10:37 AM on October 2, 2007

given that it's 3 am in Japan, unfortunately we have awhile to wait for an update. :(
posted by desjardins at 11:01 AM on October 2, 2007

I think tomsk has it. It seems as though the attempt to return the van to its original position was a botched effort to completely avoid detection.

I don't see that attempt in the description of the event, just that the friend went up one level and found her car. When 'Jax comes back, maybe he can tell us if it was in the spot directly above where the friend parked it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:56 AM on October 2, 2007

My. guess. Your friend is taking a creative writing class, and one of her assignments is to take this scenario and to write a credible resolution of the mystery. Seeking some inspiration, she spins this story to someone who has an AskMe account who then naively posts the story and . . .
posted by Neiltupper at 12:08 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: vacapinta, your explanation doesn't account for the videotape evidence. If someone was going to lie about what happened with their van, the least hypothesis is not that they make up a bizarre story like that.

My suspicion is the van was going to be used for some crime (robbery getaway vehicle? bombing?) that was aborted before it took off. The palming the wheel and shirttail on the gearshift is evidence of forethought. The fact that there were no prints on a car that had been forcibly entered is evidence of forethought. People who took the van by accident because the key matched wouldn't have been so careful not to leave prints, and they probably would have left a polite note explaining the mistake and the re-parking. Professionals planning something big which then was aborted would likely have wished to leave as few traces as possible, and so returned the van instead of abandoning it.

People with forethought, who were originally intending to return the van, leaving no evidence that it had ever been taken, would surely have had a method in place to ensure they could get the van back into the same spot it was stolen from. That makes it doubtful that the van was switched for another or that something was hidden in it. It makes it unlikely that the van was originally intended to be returned at all. I think returning the van and not putting it in the same space was a Plan B hatched on the spur of the moment.

If a van swap or a contraband plant were part of this event, they occurred not this time, but the previous time - the one your friend isn't aware of. For example, say that 3 days ago a kilo of cocaine and a GPS cellphone were planted behind an inside door panel. In this scenario, the events your friend described likely were the second trip, when the van was unloaded.

The fact the cops spent 3 hours dusting the vehicle for prints and reviewing the videotapes, when there was no clear evidence any crime had even been committed, makes me think that they knew about something else they thought might be related - a terrorist threat? a large transfer of money occurring that day in the Tokyo Dome? Something that you weren't told about, in any case.

If it were my van, I'd check as many VINs and serials as I could, take off the inside panels, and have the brakes checked, but then again I get a kick out of this kind of intrigue.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:25 PM on October 2, 2007

I think that some of flapjax's details could be questioned or investigated more carefully.
Tapes also show a man who is dressed identically but who appears to be a different person (this also according to police who viewed the tapes)
Why exactly do they think that the second man is a different person? Were there clear shots of their faces in the video? Were their shoes identical as well? Was the presence or absence of any watches or items of jewelry identical? Was there a marked difference in height, weight, gait, et cetera?
And although the weather was very hot that day the man (men) were wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt over a t-shirt, plus a baseball cap.
That attire doesn't sound particularly strange; what do you want people to wear (even when it's hot)? Nothing?
This man had the kind of pass that a hotel guest would have, in order to leave the garage in a vehicle, and return in a vehicle. This pass is also necessary to gain entrance into the hotel building from the garage.
I doubt that the hotel simply offers guest passes to random unidentified people. So: to whom was this pass registered? (woodblock100 suggested that a false identity could have been used; maybe so. If someone is driving away with a car on hotel property, though, the police might have at least rechecked the registration.)
This man was also seen in surveillance tapes shot inside the hotel.
Where exactly in the hotel? Where was he heading?

The hotel should be able to fairly easily confirm whether or not the man in the video is a valet. It sounds unlikely that they would not have already divulged such a fact.
This is obviously some new Japanese game show.
What do we win if we're right?
posted by yz at 1:17 PM on October 2, 2007

The palming the wheel sounds like just an idiosyncratic driving method. We don't know that the driver was actually using their shirt-tail to cover the gearshift, and if someone really wanted to avoid leaving prints, why wouldn't they just wear those white gloves the cabbies wear? I've known Japanese people who wear driving gloves and shoe covers in their own cars so as not to mess them up.

I'm leaning more towards the valet or honest mistake interpretations (although I've also seen valets wearing gloves in Japan).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:28 PM on October 2, 2007

This question is like the world's most amazing Rorschach test.

Anyhow, my dad once "stole" a green Volvo that looked exactly like his, and then returned it later to pretty much the same place. But if I did something that embarrassing, I'd probably be too scared to go back myself and so I would ask a friend to return the car for me. My money's on that.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:06 PM on October 2, 2007

Best answer: But croutonsupafreak, would you make them wear your clothes? :)

The aspect that argues most convincingly for the "honest mistake" theory is the period of time the van was gone. If it actually takes 10 minutes to negotiate one's way out of the complex, and the vehicle was gone for 12 minutes, there really wasn't time to do much else than take it, get out of the garage, discover the mistake, and try to get the vehicle back to the garage, probably without ever leaving the greater complex at all.

Arguing against this theory is a) if it were really two different men, and b) a stranger's van with baby seats and toys seems like it would be more difficult to mistake for your own van - unless yours does too.

If the "two men" evidence seems fairly compelling, it's not likely to have been simply a mistake, in which case the most reasonable conclusion based on the time evidence is that something was added to or removed from the van. Of these, something removed makes more sense, because the van was not parked in exactly the same place and enough care wasn't taken to ensure that your friend never knew it was gone.

So, let's say something was removed. That would suggest that whoever took it probably put it there in the probably first place, so that would indicate that they have had earlier access, and, most critically, they knew your friend would be having dinner at the hotel, because they had to be there and acquire a hotel pass. They would also have to know that she would be using the minivan. But they didn't know exactly where she would park, and this would account for the time difference between when she got there, and when the van was taken. They had to spot it first.

Assuming this is the case, why two men? The only thing that I can think of is that Man 1 was more important and needed to have the Valuable Item in his own hands, while Man 2 was of lesser importance, not to be trusted with acquiring valuable item, and less of a problem if apprehended returning the van. Why return the van? It may have actually been easier and drawn less attention than abandoning it on the shoulder of a road. After all, it can't be very likely that there is easy parking anywhere else around the complex. They could have driven it further away and abandoned it, but that means being in possession for longer than absolutely necessary, increasing their risk. This is especially true if Man 2 was ready with a "it was a total mistake!" story, which makes a lot of sense if they knew there were surveillance cameras that would show when they left and came back.

If all these things are true, then there's a very good chance that whoever did this is connected with your friend in some way, as an acquaintance, neighbor, coworker - somebody who would know enough to know she would be there in the van, who would also have had an earlier opportunity to stash something in it.

Which all seems fairly far-fetched... so unless she really feels sure it was two different men, it probably was just a mistake.

(the valet theory I don't address, because it doesn't make sense. The police and hotel would be able to figure that out easily, and valets don't have the keys and then wander around looking for the proper vehicle... they would know where the minivan fitting their key was parked.)

So, if she really does feel at least 90% certain of the two-man theory, who invited her to dinner? :)
posted by taz at 9:21 PM on October 2, 2007

Response by poster: Hi folks! Original poster flapjax here. This is amazing, all these answers, suggestions, theories! There've been some questions directed at me, so let me take a stab at some of 'em:

These Premises: Apparently nothing was moved around in the back (or anywhere) in the mini-van.

Steve in Maine: Nope, I didn't see any of this first-hand. All information I've given is second-hand, coming from my friend. And actually, technically speaking, third-hand, from my bilingual wife, to whom the story was recounted over the course of two or three get-togethers with our friend. I should note, though, that I was there on the get-togethers, getting more-or-less simultaneous translations from my wife, who, by the way, is a professional translator, completely fluent in Japanese and English. When it came time for me to make this post, my wife and I composed it together.

yz: I'm sorry I can't answer all your questions with the kind of specificity that would be required. At this point I'm wishing I had been there and heard, first-hand, everything the police told my friend, but that's not the case, so I'll just answer what I can. The police say the tapes show a different man on the way out of the garage and the way into the garage, and I'm pretty sure that was based on facial structure/jawline. I didn't hear anything about jewelry, watches or the like. As far as the hot day/clothing thing, I'm just relating what the police mentioned to her concerning the top shirt: apparently they found it a bit suspicious, enough so to mention it. But I agree with you, the attire doesn't seem all that strange, particularly. And concerning the garage pass, I really don't know to what extent they are "registered" to the users or whatever. This is something I'll try to ask my friend, when I see her again (maybe Friday). I, too, wanted to know where in the hotel the surveillance tapes showed the man, but my friend didn't know this: the police were not entirely specific with her (unsurprisingly) on every single detail.

neiltupper: your answer is chuckleworthy, but I can assure you this is not the case. Absolutely no creative writing classes going for this harried mother of 2, not to mention that she speaks nary a word of English and had never heard of AskMe or MetaFilter until I mentioned that I might post her story to this site. MeFi is maybe not quite the international household-name that you might imagine it to be!

Kirth Gerson: Yes, she did say it was in the same spot but one level up.

There may be some I've missed, and if so, apologies. I'm off now, be back tonight (that's Tokyo tonight), and will try my best to stay on top of all developments and any new questions!

And once more, big thanks to all! I've chosen a handful of "best answers", but in fact the total combination here, of different theories, possible reasons, etc. is in itself the "best" answer.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:56 PM on October 2, 2007

Thinking a bit more this jumps out at me:

Aside from the fact that it was on the wrong floor, she noticed that it had been parked front-end in, whereas she had backed her van into her parking place on the B3 level.

Assuming there were indeed two men I can see how it was mis-parked. It's certainly easy enough to mix up or misremember the level, particularly since it was a likely a stressful situation. The other aspect was that she backed in. If people park in Japan anything like they do in the US the vast majority park front in and I can easily see the first person omitting the detail that it was backed in. The parker wouldn't likely ever consider that it had been backed in, unlike 95% of the other vehicles and unlike any way he's ever parked in a garage before.

Planting an item at an earlier point in time and using the van to make a delivery seems a little unlikely as well since that takes a lot more effort than just delivering the package does. So that leads me back to something being planted. Now the question to ask is what sorts of people do these friends know?
posted by 6550 at 12:39 AM on October 3, 2007

I don't really have much to add, but I asked my fiance about it and his question was - was there any evidence at all that the car was hotwired? I don't know anything about such things. IS it possible to tell if a car has been hotwired? Maybe someone else can chime in on that.
posted by bristolcat at 6:34 AM on October 3, 2007

I see that you marked my answer best, but I'm beginning to have some doubts about it, and about the entire story as told. If the car really is a "late model," the ignition key would have had at least a chip, or maybe an RFID in it. Unlike key cuts, of which there may only be 100 or so in a model year, there can be billions of combinations to these electronic security devices, and they are much harder to spoof than a key. They can be bypassed but that requires the equivalent of major surgery on the dashboard and ignition system - not something you reasonably attempt in a (presumably well-surveilled) major hotel's parking structure, and not something that you can easily do without leaving any trace.

In other words getting the engine to start in a late-model van without the key is a considerable effort - enough that if the vehicle was chosen randomly, a late-model vehicle would not have been chosen. If the vehicle was not chosen randomly, then either a key was lost or stolen recently (which your friend should know), or someone did a bit of social engineering on your friend and obtained the key. (Was it left in her hotel room?)

When you next chat to your friend, find out the year, make and model of the van and the location (or presumed location) of all known keys to the van at the time of the incident.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2007

Response by poster: Good points , ikkyu2. I'll ask about this key stuff.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:26 PM on October 3, 2007

Yeah, I would love to know the make and model of the van, as well.

And I was wondering where the van is parked on a regular basis, because if it were actually used to transport something, it would probably have to do with a certain setting. For instance, for a silly, simplistic example, let's say the van is also used by your friend to go to her job at a bank. Something is removed from a safety deposit box by another bank worker (one who knows her well enough to get a key copy, know of her plans, etc.) and then stashed in her van, to be retrieved later...
posted by taz at 7:25 AM on October 4, 2007

Response by poster: Okay, ikkyu2, let me clarify one point: my friend, who lives in Tokyo, was not staying at the hotel. She was having dinner at the hotel restaurant, then doing a little shopping with her family. And her set is the ONLY set of keys to the car, she tells me.

And taz, the make and model of the car: We misinterpreted the "late model" part of this scenario: her car was bought recently (which was where the confusion lay) but it was a used car. The year is 1997. The model is a "Town Ace NOAH"", made by Toyota. I don't know if this mini-van has any counterpart in the US or Europe. It could well be that it's a Japan-only model.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:22 AM on October 6, 2007

A 1997 model means that there apparently is a better chance that someone else's key may have opened the lock, but also that getting a "replacement" key via VIN ID would also be easier and less expensive than for a late model vehicle. So, getting a key that would work wouldn't be much of a hassle if the VIN is readable from the outside of the car.

I guess it all comes down to how sure she feels about whether it was two guys. If she doesn't feel very certain, it must be that the guy simply made a mistake, and his key happened to fit. If she really thinks it was two guys, I would be paranoid enough to start putting a bit of tape on the bottom of the driver's side door (or slip a bit of paper between the door and the frame) to see if anyone is accessing the vehicle.

It's truly a bizarre little story. If you find out anything further, you absolutely have to update, via metatalk or email.
posted by taz at 10:55 AM on October 6, 2007

Any new information about this case, flapjax?
posted by Kattullus at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2008

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