The strange case of the car in the lake

Divers searching for a gun found a stolen car in Ketring Lake on July 23, but how long it's been submerged is a mystery. This story was published in the Littleton Independent and featured by the Colorado Sun and Colorado Public Radio.

Honda pulled from Ketring Lake reported stolen in 2006

August 9, 2019

It's a case as murky as the waters of Ketring Lake.

Scuba divers from South Metro Fire Rescue made a strange find in Ketring Lake, adjacent to the Littleton Museum, on July 23: a 1994 Honda Accord submerged in about 12 feet of water.

The next day, with the help of a jumbo-size tow truck from Connolly's Towing, the four-door sedan emerged and was laid on the grass.

Aside from a thick layer of mud and algae, the car was empty, according to a police report. The rear passenger-side window was busted out, the stereo was missing, and the ignition had been cored out. The car is not suspected to have been used in any other crimes, and Littleton Police said they do not plan on investigating further.

Littleton Police Cmdr. Trent Cooper said the divers were in the lake at the request of Englewood police, who were seeking a gun believed to be evidence in an ongoing investigation.

Though divers didn't find the gun, the car yielded a few clues: It had last been registered to a Jessica Hancock of Aurora, but the current listed owner was a now-defunct insurance company.

A search of Aurora police records found that Hancock reported the car stolen in October 2006.

Although Littleton's police report says attempts to reach Hancock were unsuccessful, she answered a call from Colorado Community Media at her home in Denver.

“They found my car?” Hancock said. “In a lake?”

Family transportation

Hancock said she, her husband and two young children had just moved into an apartment in Aurora in 2006 when the car was stolen.

They were trying to pull their lives together at the time, after living homeless on Colfax Avenue in Denver for several months. Hancock was working as a cook at Wendy's, and her husband was working for a moving company.

They shared the car for commuting, and when it went missing, it blew a hole in their fragile circumstances.

“It was horrible,” Hancock said. “We had a terrible time getting to work after that. We had to bring groceries home in an old baby stroller. Eventually the wheels busted off. It was a really hard time for us.”

When a month went by and the car was still missing, Hancock's insurance company wrote it off, and took possession of the title.

Life is much better these days for Hancock and her family. She manages a Goodwill thrift store, and the family bought a house in Denver a couple years ago. Hearing the car was found was a blast from the past, she said.

“I'm just shocked,” Hancock said. “I always wondered who took it, and why they never found it. My car stereo was about the nicest thing I owned back then. Did they steal my car just to take my stereo, and dump the whole thing in a lake?”

Varying theories

A Carfax search on the car's license plate and VIN shows no activity on the car after the day the insurance company took possession of the title in November 2006.

An Aug. 1 City of Littleton news release said the car was stolen from a salvage yard, though police later said that was a “miscommunication” based on the final title, which was listed as “salvage.”

The news release said the car could not have been in the lake any earlier than 2013, because a drought left the lake half-full that summer before Denver Water allowed the city to refill it from a fire hydrant.

Several commenters on local media pages said they knew for years that the car was in the lake, with some wondering if oil and gas in the car were responsible for dead fish found on the shore of the lake from time to time.

One woman said she told the city about the car years ago, but when asked, couldn't remember when she saw the car, or who she told. Another man said a fisherman told him he'd seen the car pushed into the lake, but couldn't remember the fisherman's name.

Both Mayor Debbie Brinkman and City Manager Mark Relph said the city had no idea a car was in the lake. South Suburban Parks and Recreation, which manages the park and lake, weren't aware either, said spokeswoman Jamie DeBartolomeis, who added that fish in the lake often die in the summer amid high water temperatures and algae blooms.

Cooper, the police spokesman, said if Littleton police had known about the car, they would have retrieved it.

“We would have wanted to search it for evidence or connection with other crimes,” Cooper said. “I find it hard to believe that it was down there that long.”

Not related to case

Police are unable to account for the car's whereabouts in the seven years between the theft and the drought year at the lake.

The lake has yet to yield the gun, said Toni Arnoldy, a City of Englewood spokeswoman.

Arnoldy's email referenced the ongoing investigation into a July 14 shooting in Englewood that left a 13-year-old boy dead and an 18-year-old man injured, though Arnoldy declined to confirm that police were searching for the murder weapon in the case.

"The vehicle had no relation to the case in any way,” Arnoldy said.

Eric Hurst, a South Metro Fire spokesman, said later that finding a gun on a muddy lake bottom is a tall order.

“Unless you have a witness who actually saw someone throw it in, it's extremely difficult to find the right spot,” Hurst said. “Our divers were literally feeling around by hand, and using metal detectors, which were picking up every last nail, screw and pop can down there.”

For the time being, the car is in the impound lot at Connolly's Towing on South Federal Boulevard, said impound associate Dave Rieb.

Staff reached out to the company on the title, Reid said, but were unaware that the company had gone out of business. If they're unable to find an owner, eventually the car will be scrapped, Rieb said.

“I feel pretty confident," Rieb said, "nobody's going to want it."