What Are the Odds?

At about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night, February 22, 1964, Elmer Wright parked what newspapers described as his “1949 green car” on the street near his house in the 2800 block of Harford Road in Baltimore, Maryland. At about 3:00 a.m., Elmer heard his car crank up and leave. He looked out his window and watched in amazement as his car drove away. He called the police and reported his car stolen.

About fifteen minutes later, James Alderman drove the stolen car into a parked car at the intersection of Linden Avenue and Watt Street. Patrolmen Calvin Cason and Ralph Baker arrived on the scene shortly after and began investigating the crash. The officers spoke with the four occupants of the car, James Alderman, Robert Faison, and James’s two sisters, in order to learn how the crash happened. As the patrolmen spoke to the occupants, they heard the police dispatcher put out a bolo (be on lookout) for a stolen green 1949 car bearing license plate number AM-1265. The two patrolmen looked at the wrecked car and then looked at each other. They confirmed that it was the stolen car when they looked at the license plate number.

The patrolmen questioned the group about the car and they all assured them that the car belonged to James. To prove it, James locked one of the doors on the car, then unlocked it with his set of keys. He did the same with the trunk and ignition. The patrolmen assumed that James had stolen the car and assumed the owner had left the keys in the ignition. James was adamant that the car was his and argued that he had not stolen it. The occupants who had been with James were absolutely certain that the car belonged to James. Their arguments were silenced when the patrolmen showed them the license plate. All four of the occupants of the stolen car were amazed. This was not James’s car. His license plate number was CZ-6512.

The patrolmen, sure they had just caught four car thieves, questioned them at length. James told the officers that he had parked his car on the 2800 block of Harford Road, and, at about 3:00 a.m., he and his companions entered the car and drove away. Fifteen minutes later, they had the car crash. End of story.

This was certainly not the end of the story. The patrolmen arrested the four alleged car thieves and drove them to the police department. On the way, curiosity got the better of them and patrolmen drove down the 2800 block of Harford Road. Parked on the 2800 block was a car which looked exactly like the one involved in the car crash. It was the same year, make, model, and color. The only difference they could see was the license plate number. The patrolmen and the alleged car thieves stared in disbelief. The patrolmen pulled over and inspected the other 1949 green car. They tried James’s car keys and were shocked when they were able to unlock the car doors and start the car. The license plate on this car was CZ-6512.

James, his occupants, and the patrolmen all realized the amazing coincidence and James’s simple mistake. James saw what he thought was his car parked where he thought he had left his car. His keys unlocked the doors and started the car. As it was 3:00 a.m. and dark, James and his passengers were unable to see well enough inside the car to realize that they were in someone else’s car. Since the keys worked, they did not even give it a second thought.

Even as late as the 1960s, car companies used only a small number of locks keyed differently for their cars. Due to the number of paint colors, interior seat patterns, the large number of cars they sold, and the locations where the cars were sold, it would be almost impossible, the car companies contended, for an incident like this to happen. What were the odds?

Unfortunately for James, the odds were against him on this night. Had James not wrecked Elmer’s car into the parked car, the officers could have just returned the car to Elmer and forgotten the whole incident. However, since there was damage to the car, the patrolmen charged James and Robert, not with car theft, but with unauthorized use of the car. In court, both men plead guilty before Judge Albert Blum, and James explained the incident. Judge Blum was bewildered at the story and sat in silence for a moment which, to James and Robert, must have seemed like hours. Judge Blum said, “This is one of the most amazing coincidences in my life. And I’ve lived a few years. It is absolutely fantastic; it’s a story book situation.” Even though James and Robert plead guilty, the judge found them not guilty.

The Baltimore Sun, February 24, 1964, p.32.

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