This is going to sound like a story straight out of an episode of Judge Judy, but it’s 100 percent true, and the stolen vehicle has yet to be recovered, so keep your eyes peeled! The names of some of the people in this story have been changed because the investigation surrounding it is still pending.
Gaylord Thompson and his business partner Matt Alfermann started Golden, Colorado–based Adventure Travel Sport Rentals (ATSR) in 2014 after a visit to Overland Expo prompted the realization that in America there’s a market demand for off-road–capable, rental adventure camping rigs. They’ve had an impressive amount of success in the past few years, with Gaylord making the decision to dedicate his workweek to the company full time last year in order to handle the increasing amount of incoming business.
Normally ATSR has a fleet of seven vehicles, ranging from stock 4x4s like their 200 Series Toyota Land Cruiser and Tundra TRD Pro to their fully customized overland-ready 4x4 Sportsmobile. The coolest part of ATSR is that they encourage their customers to take the rentals off-road, out of state, and even out of the country, seeking adventure off the beaten path. Currently their Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is in the process of being replaced after a hairy wreck, and their new 4Runner is missing in action, believed to be stolen by a fraudulent renter with a documented criminal history.
“It’s such an odd situation; we’ve never had to deal with anything like this in the five years we’ve been renting vehicles,” said Gaylord.
Early in January of 2018 Gaylord arranged a last-minute rental for Wendy Testaburger, a Colorado native, for a trip out of state with ATSR’s newly purchased 2014 4Runner Trail Edition Premium that they outfitted with a 3-inch lift, Frontrunner roof rack, and Gobi rear ladder. ATSR handles their rental contracts through Outdoorsy, a person-to-person rental service similar to the popular rental app Turo, but for RVs. Renting with Outdoorsy requires an online profile, a copy of a valid driver’s license, and a signed rental agreement. Then the company runs a DMV driver’s license check. Everything Wendy submitted checked out without any hiccups. Gaylord noted that the rental was even paid for with a credit card in Wendy’s name. Later on, the 4Runner was picked up without issue and the first few payments were made successfully.
The first time this rental raised a red flag for Gaylord was when Wendy stated paying her daily rental fee with a man’s credit card, we’ll call him Jerry Smith. Gaylord called Wendy to ask about the strange payments and she told him it was a potential boyfriend that was making the payments for her as a gift. The man’s name was not on the rental agreement, and when Gaylord started reaching Jerry instead of Wendy when he called her that was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.
He told Jerry he was uncomfortable with the way the rental was working out and that he would like them to return the vehicle early, and upon return would refund them for the missed days at the end of their trip. Jerry wasn’t happy about this, and argued that Wendy needed the vehicle to return from Flagstaff, a place Gaylord wasn’t aware she was going to take the 4Runner to. After some debate Gaylord eventually agreed, against his best judgment, to let Wendy and Jerry complete the rental agreement as planned as long as the vehicle was returned when it was due on January 14.
January 14 arrived, and the by the end of the day the 4Runner was still MIA. ATSR puts tracking software in all of their vehicles, but because the 4Runner is new to the company the tracking device hadn’t been installed yet, so Gaylord couldn’t pinpoint its location. He tried calling Wendy—no answer. Finally, he got ahold of Jerry who said he didn’t know where Wendy was but that her plan was to return it on the 14th, and then he hung up. January 15, 16, and 17 rolled by and Gaylord still hadn’t heard from Wendy or Jerry, and neither of them were returning his daily messages or calls. At this point, all he wanted was his 4x4 back so he could rent it to other customers who were calling about it. His messages to Wendy and Jerry said that he wouldn’t involve the police or anyone as long as they would just return the rig, or even leave it somewhere to be picked up. Still no response. Things weren’t looking good for Gaylord, and he knew it.
In a last-ditch effort to see if Wendy ever even followed her original travel plans, Gaylord called up the Hotel Jerome, a swanky Aspen vacation resort where Wendy said she was staying for part of the rental period. He explained the situation and asked the concierge if there’s any way he could confirm if his now possibly stolen 4Runner was ever at the Hotel Jerome. Lo and behold the valet cameras at the hotel had captured the 4Runner entering and exiting the hotel garage several times during the rental period, but the staff of the hotel revealed a very important clue that flipped Gaylord’s investigation on its head, and he knew that at that point he couldn’t tackle it on his own. He needed professional help.
Upon finding out that the name of the woman who checked in to the Hotel Jerome with his 4Runner was not the same as the name of the woman he rented it to, Gaylord hired a private investigator. He wanted to know who it really was that rented his vehicle and how to get ahold of them, and the PI delivered. Turns out that while Wendy Testaburger is a real person, she’s recently been a victim of identity theft, by none other than the woman whose name was on the roster at the Hotel Jerome, we’ll call her Molly Manderson.
When Gaylord’s PI tracked down the real Wendy at her home and showed her a picture of Molly, Wendy recognized her immediately. It turns out that not long ago, Wendy, who was down on her luck and low on finances, made a post on Craigslist looking for a low rate on an informal short-term car rental. Jerry Smith responded to her ad, preying upon her vulnerability. He told her that he too had been down on his luck in the past, and was willing to help her out. Jerry said he would rent her a car at a 50 percent discounted rate for several days and Wendy agreed to turn over her information, as one would for any car rental. Jerry and Molly weren’t out to pay it forward and help out someone in need though. Their scheme involved using fraudulent identification and stolen credit cards to rent cars through person-to-person rental services, then re-rent the cars to people at a reduced rate, collect all the money and the renter’s identification, and scurry away with it, ghosting the renter and leaving them with a car to return and a freshly stolen identity. Wendy stopped hearing from Molly and Jerry toward the end of her rental period, and thought it was strange but didn’t alert authorities because she didn’t even know that her identity had been stolen. That is why her credit card went through when Molly charged it for the 4Runner, and her driver’s license passed the DMV check even though it was stolen.
Wendy quickly turned from prime suspect to a valuable asset in the investigation, which at this point warranted police intervention. Wendy handed over all the information she had on Molly and Jerry, which included Molly’s real name, descriptions, and exact locations of homes and locations Wendy had met with Molly and Jerry, and even names and descriptions of Molly’s kids who Wendy had met. The police and Gaylord’s PI now had a lot of information to work off of and things were starting to look a little more promising. Using Molly Manderson’s real name and phone number the PI was able to pull up a past mugshot of her; clearly this wasn’t her first time breaking the law.
The PI dug up an address for a known family member of Manderson, and upon arrival at her cousin’s residence he learned that she had recently been questioned about Molly by the police. Good, he thought, they’re on top of it. Well, not exactly. The police that had recently interviewed Molly’s cousin, she revealed, were from an entirely different police department than the one Gaylord had reported his 4Runner stolen to, and they were investigating an entirely different case of auto rental fraud in which the rented vehicle had been abandoned and recovered. The plot thickens.
Currently Gaylord is getting ready for meetings early next week with Colorado PD, his private eye and Wendy Testaburger, a person he’s very grateful for. Without Wendy’s meticulous record keeping and cooperation the identity of the perp in this case may not have been revealed. Person-to-person rental services are a relatively new phenomenon, only recently gaining popularity in the Airbnb era of app- and web-based rental services. With new technology comes holes and loopholes that allow criminals to game the system, and that is exactly what Jerry Smith and Molly Manderson have done. As most seasoned law enforcement personnel will tell you though, you can’t run from justice. Especially when you’re not smart enough to cover your tracks and keep your real name hidden. As we already stated, while some names have been changed this is a true and ongoing story. We’ll post updates as soon as we hear any news from Gaylord and his team of sleuths. For now, if you’re in the Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, or the Rocky Mountain area keep your eyes out for a Gray 2014 4Runner Trail Edition Premium, outfitted with a 3-inch lift, Frontrunner roof rack, and Gobi rear ladder. If you spot it you’ll earn yourself a shout-out when we reveal (hopefully) that it’s been recovered.