How a Montgomery Resident’s Lexus Ended Up in Turkmenistan
By Barbara A. Preston | September 29, 2022
It was a far-flung mystery for Scott Gurian, host of the “Far from Home” podcast.
Gurian was traveling across Asia on a roadtrip six years ago, when his car broke down in Turkmenistan, in the middle of the desert. He met a guy named Oraz, after he managed to get towed to a garage.
“Nobody really spoke English, except for Oraz,” Gurian told NPR’s “Planet Money” recently. “I was the first native English speaker he’d ever met, so he was pretty excited. And he went out of his way to help me. He took me to a money changer, helped me get back on the road. Ever since then, we’ve kind of stayed in touch.”
Oraz in Turkmenistan with a white Lexus that had belonged to a Montgomery Township resident. (Photo courtesy of "Planet Money.")
Oraz ran an auto body repair shop in Turkmenistan, and taught himself English watching "Friends" on television. The U.S. Department of state warns Americans to: "Reconsider travel to Turkmenistan due to Embassy Ashgabat’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens, and COVID-19-related restrictions.
When Oraz came across a new white Lexus SUV that arrived on his lot, he reached out to Gurian to ask him a few questions. Oraz wondered: "How did this car get here, to his shop? And what kind of place, what kind of person, casts off such a nice new car? The even stranger thing was the shape it was in. It was practically brand new, unlike the dented and mangled cars that usually come to him for repairs,” Gurian said in his podcast.
Oraz could see by the inspection sticker on the windshield that the luxury vehicle came from Gurian’s home state of New Jersey. Oraz gets many used cars from the U.S., most with body damage. He fixes them, and resells them. But the 2021 Lexus appeared to be brand new, in perfect condition, and with only 7,000 miles on it.
Gurian became curious, and decided to embark on a journalistic detective’s endeavor through the winding Web of the global economy to find the original owner of the vehicle, in hopes of learning the story of the white Lexus.
NPR’s “Planet Money” Host Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi also got hooked. He wondered:
“Was the Lexus part of a Soprano-style, NJ stolen car ring? Would we uncover an elaborate insurance fraud racquet? What are the economic forces pushing this steady flow of damaged and mauled cars halfway around the world?”
The case of the white Lexus, and, what does Montgomery Township have to do with it?
Gurian's journalistic journey through the international used-car “clunker” underground ultimately led to a pleasant, two-story home in suburban Montgomery Township, he said during a telephone interview with The Montgomery News.
“When I looked up the VIN [vehicle identification number], I found the original online auction listing for the Lexus with lots of photos and other details of the car. In one of the photos I could see some writing scrawled on the back windshield — Montgomery Police Department Impound,” he said.
The car also had a date written on it, September 2, 2021. “When I saw that, I was like, oh, okay. That was exactly when the tail end of Hurricane Ida passed over the state, causing massive destruction, huge amounts of rain, and there were even tornadoes in some places.”
Gurian knows this because he lives in New Jersey, in Bloomfield. This clue led him to a location practically right in his own backyard. The case seemed like a slam dunk. [Ever wonder what happened to all the cars totaled during Hurricane Ida? Hmmm.]
But how did the car actually get to Turkmenistan?
Gurian found that a Turkmenistan businessman named Magtim bought the Lexus via the Copart (Chambersburg, PA) online auction for $20,600. Then, Magtim paid a couple thousand dollars more to get the Lexus on a container ship from the US to Dubai, and then trucked to Turkmenistan.
The car needed some repairs, so the total price came to about $30,000. (A lot, but only half of what one would pay for a brand new one.)
Copart specializes in selling totaled cars. There is a market for these cars in certain countries abroad for several reasons. Number one: “Labor costs in many of these countries is a small fraction of what it is here in the United States,” according to Gurian’s research. “You go to a Toyota dealership, they may charge you a $140 an hour. In these countries, people may just make $2 to $3 a day.”
Repairing a flood-damaged car can be economical.
Carfax processed more than 200,000 New Jersey vehicles that were damaged in the storm. The white Lexus was traced to a particular police department - Montgomery Township. So Gurian called the Montgomery police:
“Hi. I’m actually calling ‘cause I’m trying to see if I could find some information on a particular vehicle that was flooded last September,” he said. “Who would be the best person for me to speak to about that?”
Gurian was connected to a Montgomery police sergeant who did not want to be identified or recorded. “But, the sergeant told me he was working the night of the storm last year. A bunch of cars got flooded, including his own pickup truck sitting right out in the police station parking lot while he was at work, so he kind of had a natural interest in helping us.”
The Montgomery News editor wonders where the pickup truck is now? (Perhaps another story?)
Writing on the window reads: "Montgomery PD Flood Impounded 9-2-21." Photo courtesy of NPR.
The sergeant checked the police database and found the original owners of the white Lexus almost immediately, Gurian reported. “He’s got their name and address right there in front of him. Then, of course, he tells us that he can’t share it for privacy reasons, but he says he will go to the owner’s house and leave a note for them, telling them to contact us.”
“So he does that. But as more and more time passed, it started to feel like things had kind of stalled. I was spinning my wheels. I was sort of grasping at straws, trying to figure out how to make it happen. I even reached out to this private eye I know, a guy named [Thomas] Hal Humphreys.” Humphreys struck out.
After exhausting every option Gurian could think of, he posted in Montgomery Township NJ Community Facebook group in May. And late one night he got a message from a tow truck driver named John. He was working when Hurricane Ida came through.
John sent Gurian a TikTok video, basically just cell a phone video panning over a bunch of towed cars.
“And then, all of a sudden, there it is - the white Lexus RX 350. I was kind of freaking out. This is when I felt like I had cracked the case because there was our Lexus just hours after it was flooded, about to be sent into the upside-down world of salvaged cars.”
“Anyway, the tow truck driver also wouldn’t tell us the names of the car’s former owners, but he offered to swing by their home after work to try to talk to them for us.”
As the tow truck driver approached the former car owner’s house in Montgomery Township, he was on the phone with Gurian, who hoped the Lexis owner would talk to him.
“We’re walking up the driveway, ringing the doorbell,” John told Gurian via his cell phone. “There is a new white Lexus in the homeowner’s drive way."
The tow truck driver described the Montgomery neighborhood as “pretty typical suburban, not super fancy, but nice, with two-story houses, two-car garages, on a little cul-de-sac.”
John knocks on the door. The homeowner answers.
John: “How’s it going?”
John: “I believe you had a white Lexus that was in an Ida, in the flood.”
John: “So we happen to be the towing company that towed it.”
John: “And there is two reporters that are doing a article, and they happened to choose your old car. So they wanted to try and reach out to you and they haven’t been able to get a hold of you or find your information. And we won’t give out your information without your permission.”
John: “So that’s why I’m here. If you’d be willing to talk to them or not.”
Homeowner: “No, we’re not interested.”
Homeowner: “Thank you for stopping by, but we’re not interested.”
John: “Not a problem.”
Homeowner: “Appreciate it. You have a good night.”
John: “You, too.”
Article continues after ad from our sponsor:
The end of the story
“Man, that is so sad. We’ve come so far. We were so close,” Gurian said. It was all over in two seconds. Just like that.
It was not the ending the reporter wanted, but the homeowner was firm. A person needs to know when to give up.
“When we first started working on this story, we were trying to figure out the economic forces that took a car from my home state of New Jersey all the way to a dusty car lot in Turkmenistan,” Gurian said.
Horowitz-Ghazi of "Planet Money" concluded: “Maybe the story might have ended with something poetic, a conversation between Oraz and the original car owner, where we’d all feel linked by the global economy and think about how these everyday objects we kind of take for granted lead lives of their own, connecting us in ways we never even see. But we do have another ending, and maybe a better one.” ■
Listen to the fascinating 28-minute story on npr.org, check out this link: “The Salvage Car Silk Road.”
Excepts from this article are taken from the transcript, and are the work of NPR's "Planet Money" and the "Far from Home" podcast.