Stolen, rare ‘Darth Vader car’ recovered from NJ impound lot after 12 years

The boxy black Buick rolled out of the dusty Irvington mine Wednesday, as if it had spent 12 years lost to other junkers on a distant desert planet.

This is not a typical sample. It’s a 1987 Regal GNX, a rare muscle car so impressive and powerful that it was dubbed the “Darth Vader car” of its day.

And this one saw the dark side.

Taken from the front of a Belleville restaurant in 2012, it crashed into the wrong crowd and was among dozens of high-end vehicles seized in a 2019 Newark drug and gambling bust, according to reports. the court.

It spent the next few years in police custody while its owner, Latchman Raghunandan, hired a private investigator to find it. In January, a state supreme court judge ruled that the Buick belonged to him, the New Jersey Law Journal reported this week.

They finally meet again, at the Irvington impound.

“It was like a perfect storm,” Raghunandan’s attorney, Catherine P. Kelly, told NJ Advance Media in an interview.

What took so long?

Essex County law enforcement officials said the car was theirs after it was seized in 2019’s Operation Short Storm with drugs, paraphernalia, and paraphernalia. weapons and watches worth $1.1 million — moved to court to get them in a process known as civil forfeiture.

An accused drug dealer, Angel Tirado, insisted it was his, one of six Buick Grand Nationals he owned over the years. He was fighting robbery in court, causing a collision in the car. In 2021, a judge said it belonged to the Crown Prosecution Service in Essex.

But Raghunandan did not relent. He loved the car, his lawyer said, and planned to give it to his children one day.

“You know, this car is rare, and the plaintiff really likes cars and it meant a lot to him, so that motivated him to pursue the case,” he said.

A leaked poster shows the Buick GNX for the first time.

Like the “Star Wars” name, the 1987 Buick Regal GNX has a cult following.

They only made 547 of these bad boys, a collaboration between US-based Buick and McLaren, the British luxury car maker that took Buick’s Grand National model, put it in soup and added a turbo to the “top of the range,” according to the American Muscle Car Museum. .

The product, which could go from zero to 60 in five seconds and was said to take the quarter mile faster than a Chevy Corvette, became an instant collector’s item that became more valuable over time.

They can fetch $150,000 or more at auction. Vin Diesel drove a car for a scene in one of the movies “Fast and Furious”, the cultural mediator in our country where the car is cool.

So after private investigators tracked the car to the scene of the 2020 Irvington arrest, Raghunandan pleaded guilty and drove his prized Buick out of jail.

The presence of fewer than 600 such vehicles made the job easier, but still required a red coast crossing, according to court records.

At first, Kelly said, they couldn’t even get the impound lot or the Irvington police to admit they actually owned a GNX Regal. Then, police said they had one, but wouldn’t let anyone come to see it, records said.

Meanwhile, if Raghunandan can’t prove that the car is his, Essex County officials can take it from Tirado and auction it off.

“Operation Short Storm” was a 2019 statewide drug bust around a Newark social club that led to the indictment of 46 people. 1987 Buick Regal GNX – found by police in garage , along with two Mercedes Benz 550 sedans and other luxury cars – became property.

Divestment could mean more money for local governments, budgeting and funding for community programs and upgrading police equipment. . And the authorities almost win in such cases, the study says, because most of them are not challenged.

But if you’ve ever met a real car guy, you’ve probably noticed two things: He likes to tell you everything he’s done to the car, and he keeps records.

“The car that was in the Irvington impound had the same modifications as my client’s car,” Kelly said.

They set out to prove it.

There was one immediate problem: The vehicle identification number, or VIN, for Raghunandan’s Buick didn’t match the one in Irvington. But a mechanic testified that the car showed signs of vandalism, including a strange VIN number and serial number.

Aftermarket upgrades also seem to be common.

Raghunandan said under oath that he bought the car in 2002 with another car that replaced the air intake system, installed an Alpine radio head on the dashboard and installed a custom sound system with the sign of a store called Krank It Up, which has only one location in Massachusetts, in the trunk.

The impounded Buick had all of these as well. Of the 547 cars made by Buick and McLaren, is it possible to share a few aftermarket features?

Tirado said in his affidavit that he bought the car in 2012, but he had trouble presenting documents proving the ownership, saying they were seized by the police.

Furthermore, he said he wasn’t fighting an actual 1987 Buick Regal GNX, but a more classic Grand National model he had tricked out to look like its sibling.

“I went into the tiniest detail of cloning my car to look like the ‘Real Deal,'” Tirado wrote in longhand from an East Jersey prison, where He served seven years for robbery and weapons charges.

Ultimately, the judge allowed Raghunandan’s mechanic to examine the car, issuing a 19-page report that concluded it was the Buick he was working on before it was stolen. Although the VIN didn’t match, the mechanic wrote that the serial number on the car matched another Buick Regal GNX that was said to be a “total loss” due to fire and damage.

Then there were Raghunandan’s car keys, which he kept for years. Upon inspection, the device did not work with its lights, which may have been broken but opened the Buick’s doors, trunk and glove box.

On January 29 — more than three years into the court battle and more than a dozen since it was stolen — Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham found evidence that Raghunandan was “the master of the law.” ” of Buick.

He ordered it back.

Kelly, the car owner’s attorney, credits his client’s attitude to his car, creativity and a little luck.

“Most of the stolen cars, if found, are just destroyed,” he said. “To find it so many years later, still intact, still recognizable, is incredible.”

“And the thing is, only 547 were made in the world, and this one was found seven miles from where it was stolen,” Kelly said.

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