Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A wheel deal
Ridgefield soldier buys car that may have been Saddam's
By Chipp Reid

A year's service in Iraq gave William von Zehle a host of memories, some good, some bad. The first sergeant in the Danbury-based 411th Civil Affairs Battalion returned home from Baghdad a certified hero for his rescue efforts when terrorists destroyed the United Nations headquarters in the Iraqi capital. He helped foster democracy where it never existed and gave hope to a people still suffering the after effects of war and oppression.

He also came home with a new car, a Mercedes Benz that possibly once belonged to Saddam Hussein.

The lanky Ridgefield resident spotted the car in a driveway in an upscale neighborhood soon after he arrived in Baghdad in April 2003. The Mercedes had a band of steel just below the windshield that normal cars don't have. The extra steel helps the chassis withstand the weight of the armor plating and bulletproof glass.

"I could tell right away it was armored," von Zehle said, "and I thought that was kind of neat."

An armored Mercedes in the middle of Baghdad was strange enough to make von Zehle stop. The anxious owner, worried the soldier was going to just take the car, began yelling at von Zehle in Arabic. But it turned out the owner spoke English as well and soon he and von Zehle were dealing.

"I told him I collect Mercedes and just wanted to take a look at the car. He asked me if I wanted to buy it," von Zehle said. "The guy was a Sunni (Muslim) who could see which way the wind was blowing and he was moving to Jordan."

Because it was armored, von Zehle wondered just who bought the Mercedes when it was new. The Iraqi man produced a sales receipt showing he bought it from "the Iraqi government." He also lived in an a section of Baghdad known for its sympathy to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Ridgefield resident already has four other Mercedes — a 2003 ML 350, a 1999 E300 diesel, a 1984 300TD diesel and a 1978 450SEL 6.9 that once belonged to actor William Holden. One more car — an armored one at that — would make a nice addition to his growing collection. "We started to negotiate," von Zehle said. "In the Middle East, you don't just buy anything. You haggle a bit."

The two finally settled on a price — 7 million Iraqi dinars or about $5,000. After jumping through a few local bureaucratic hoops, von Zehle paid the owner and took his new car back to the 411th's guarded compound, right next to the United Nations headquarters.

"Everyone thought it was pretty neat," von Zehle said. "They also thought I was crazy. In hindsight, I guess I was."

After buying the car, von Zehle quickly noticed it had a few of those "extras" for which some car buyers pay thousands extra.

"One of the neat things, aside from the fact it's armored, is it has microphones that allow you to hear people talking outside the car and loudspeakers so you can talk back to them," von Zehle said. "It also had a pretty neat crowd-control device."

Although he had to dismantle it, the "crowd-control device" consisted of a series of pipes that would shoot out flames from the side of the car. "I guess it was to make sure nobody got too close," said von Zehle, who is a Wilton firefighter.

Those extras made von Zehle even more curious about the original owner. He started to digging and making phone calls — from Baghdad — to Mercedes-Benz global headquarters in Germany. He also had to figure out how to get the car to Connecticut.

After months of phone calls between his wife and anyone he could think of, the sergeant contacted a shipping company in England that dealt with the Middle East.

The shipping company arranged for a driver to pick up the car and bring it first to Amman, Jordan. The driver came, got the keys and off he went while von Zehle wondered if he would actually make it. Nearly three days later, the driver was back — with the car.

"He got to the border, showed the registration and the guard there said there was a problem," von Zehle said.

A worker at the Iraqi motor vehicles department had transposed two numbers in the vehicle identification number on the registration form. Because the VIN on the form didn't match the one on the dashboard, the guard wouldn't allow the car into Jordan. He also told the driver something else. "He said to him, 'I know whose car this is'," von Zehle said. "There is an extra tax."

The "tax" was a bribe by another name.

The guard told the driver to return with $1,000 in cash and gave him what appeared to be a form to fill out. But the form was just a blank piece with one key piece of information. The guard "just signed his name," von Zehle said.

It was the comment about who owned the car that caught von Zehle off guard. He already knew Mercedes sold three armored 560s to the Iraqi government in 1988. Mercedes couldn't tell him the individuals who got the cars, just the fact the government bought them. In 1988, the Iraqi government could only mean one person.

"Saddam," von Zehle said. "I am pretty sure but I can't prove it, but yeah, this was Saddam Hussein's car."

As his suspicions about the car grew, von Zehle said he started to look for anything that would — or would not —connect the car to Saddam. He came across three photos of the former Iraqi dictator driving in a white armored Mercedes. Although there was no way to completely prove the car in the photos was the car now in von Zehle's garage, it was enough to convince the sergeant.

"Like I said, I can't prove it," von Zehle said. "But there is enough evidence to make me believe this was Saddam's car."

It turned out figuring out the car's original ownership was a lot easier than getting it home.

Von Zehle actually arrived in Connecticut before the car. His Mercedes went from Jordan to Syria to Greece to Spain before finally arriving in New Jersey in May, 2004.

The customs service picked the container the car was in as one of those it would randomly inspect, and von Zehle had to pay $700 for that privilege. It still rankles him.

"I couldn't believe that," von Zehle said. "It's like the people at the airport charging you to inspect your luggage."

He also knows he had to pay the fee.

The problems, however, didn't stop there. Because the Mercedes came from Iraq, the state Department of Motor Vehicles considered it a "gray market car," von Zehle said. The state wouldn't certify the car unless everything was intact, including the window glazing. Some looters in Baghdad made that impossible.

There was also other damage. Von Zehle said he thinks his driver from Baghdad to Amman got into an accident. "The right front fender was mashed and the hood didn't match," he said. "Someone tried to cover up the damage."

Von Zehle has fixed everything but a broken front passenger window. Sounds simple, but it's a major sticking point. A new bulletproof window costs $14,170 and it isn't the kind of item local auto parts stores carry.

The total of buying the car and getting it home is "significantly more than I ever anticipated," said von Zehle although he wouldn't say how much more.

Today, the car sits in von Zehle's garage.

"One day I'll get it registered," he said. "It's a nice car and all, but I learned the moral to my own story. If you ever want to bring a car home from Iraq, don't."

Even if that car once belonged to a dictator.

(Source: - See link for pictures)


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