Steamboat Springs When Gary Green's sport utility vehicle was missing from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport parking lot Sunday, he assumed some nefarious ne'er-do-well had snatched it.
That wasn't exactly the case - but he nonetheless had a wild ride ahead.
Green is a Cincinnatian who owns a house in Steamboat Springs. When he heads back to Steamboat, the man who cares for his house leaves Green's Chevrolet Suburban at the airport with the keys tucked in the gas cap.
But something was amiss when Green arrived with a crew of kids Sunday: no sign of the SUV. Green, tired after his flight, opted not to flip out.
"It was an inconvenience," he said. "I was actually surprised that something like that would happen in Steamboat."
He reported the vehicle stolen, rented a car and headed to Steamboat with the kids: his 16-year-old daughter, Jessie, his 10-year-old son, Robby, and a friend of theirs. They rounded up another friend in Steamboat.
He bought the kids ice cream and headed to Wal-Mart to buy the Xbox 360 he'd promised Robby. The store was closed for Easter - but a surprise was waiting for the Greens.
"There was only one car in the parking lot," Green said Monday from the ski slopes. "It was a Suburban, pewter like mine, with Ohio license plates and two kids sitting in the back."
A man got into the SUV, and Green hit his horn.
The man was Cliff Bernstein of Laguna Beach, Calif. He had popped over to the shuttered Wal-Mart with his friend's kids, hoping to get sunglasses while his friends were grocery shopping.
Green asked Bernstein where the car came from, and Bernstein said folks at the Marabou subdivision gave it to him to use. Bernstein asked what the problem was, and Green told him the Suburban looked like one owned by a friend of his.
"I couldn't understand why somebody was stealing a car with kids," Green said. "That was a little confusing, but I knew it was my car."
Something didn't add up to the Cincinnati businessman. This guy had stopped to talk and wasn't acting like a fellow who had just boosted a high-dollar SUV.
Green said he thought someone else had stolen the car and it had somehow ended up in Bernstein's hands.
"I just started thinking that he wasn't the absolute guilty party," he said.
But the facts were there: The guy in front of him was driving away in his car.
Green called the Steamboat Springs Police Department and followed Bernstein in the rental. Bernstein kept glancing back in the mirror.
"I thought he was crazy," Bernstein said. "I couldn't understand it. : I was telling kids in the back, I said, 'I hope my friends care enough about me that they'd follow my car if they thought it was stolen.'"
Green's daughter and her friend weren't crazy about the pseudo car chase.
"We were all ducking because we were embarrassed," Jessie Green said. "We were afraid that wasn't our car."
As Green talked to police, Bernstein pulled over at City Market. He left the car and asked Green if he wanted to write down the license plate number, insisting that the car wasn't stolen.
That's when the police arrived.
Three cars hit the scene, Green said, and Bernstein's confused friends came out of City Market to the flashing lights.
"They were wondering why the police were outside the car," Bernstein said Tuesday. "They thought maybe I'd gotten into an altercation with someone out there."
The police helped the two confused men sort through the affair.
So what happened here?
Bernstein is planning to build a house on property he owns at Marabou. The developers told him a Suburban would be waiting for him at the airport when he arrived Saturday afternoon - parking receipt on the dashboard and keys in the gas cap. When he found a vehicle matching that description, he took it.
"It was in long-term parking, right near the front," he said, adding that Green's vehicle is similar to those used by Marabou. "It's a car I've seen over and over. The keys were in the gas cap. Who would have looked any further?"
The police were a huge help, Bernstein said.
"The police could have made it a lot more difficult" for Bernstein, he said, adding that he felt like an idiot.
The 12-year-olds in the "stolen" Suburban got a kick out of the whole affair.
"They were laughing; they thought it was funny," Bernstein said. "First, that somebody thought I would steal a car - and then that I actually did."
After they sorted things out, Bernstein drove the Suburban to Green's house, took Green's rental car back to the airport and picked up the correct SUV.
And he invited Green over for dinner Tuesday night.
"Clearer heads prevailed," Bernstein said. "And here we are now, friends."
Green was thankful that it all worked out. Oh, and he headed back to Wal-Mart on Tuesday morning to get Robby's Xbox.
"Everybody's great," he said. "Everybody's happy."
-To reach Blythe Terrell, call 871-4234
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