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Seize and Desist

For Vince Phason, his 1987 GMC school bus was much more than just a set of wheels.

Phason used the bus to travel all over town. To transport the kids he coached in football to games and practice. To get to Metro State, where he was studying social work. To do the types of things people do every day. But for Phason, a quadriplegic, it was freedom. He couldn't actually drive the bus, which he'd retrofitted to seat two wheelchairs and five other passengers, but friends regularly volunteered to helm it for him.

"The kids loved the bus," says the former professional Canadian-league football player, who was paralyzed in a car accident. "It had a stereo system; everybody loved riding in it."

Until the City of Denver seized his dream vehicle last September.

It seems that while Phason was at the dentist's office, a friend, who was his driver for the day, was involved in a hit-and-run accident with a pedestrian. But he never said anything to Phason about it. Until the police knocked at his door a few days later, Phason was completely unaware of the incident.

"They said somebody hit a lady at 31st and Gaylord streets, got out and asked her if she was okay, then drove away," he recalls.

The police took the bus to the city's impound lot while they conducted an investigation, and his friend, whom he'd known since the second grade, disappeared.

"I haven't seen him since that day," Phason says.

Since the vehicle was fully insured, Phason assumed that once the police realized he hadn't been involved in the accident, they would return it to him. And over the next several weeks, he called the city's impound lot several times a day, trying to schedule a time to come by. He even sent over his friend, Darrell Griffin, to talk to the impound manager, but Phason says all Griffin got was a bureaucratic runaround. "If somebody says go here, do that, believe me, I'll do it," Phason says. "They treated me like I was a criminal."

Then in November, two months after seizing the vehicle, the city sold it at auction for $550 -- far short of the thousands of dollars Phason estimates he spent rebuilding the engine and adding the special lift for wheelchairs.

"I'd say that bus is worth between $4,000 and $5,000," Griffin says.

When Phason found out his bus was gone, he complained to the Denver Department of Public Safety, and earlier this year, the city attorney's office offered to pay him $550. Exasperated, Phason went to a meeting of the Denver Public Safety Review Commission in January to complain about his dealings with the impound lot. He told them he had never even been informed that his bus was up for auction, that he felt he'd been treated unfairly, and that he now had to ride on RTD -- not a pleasant experience for a quadriplegic.

By chance, that meeting was broadcast on the city's cable channel, and Mayor Wellington Webb was watching. He called Phason to find out what happened. "He seemed kind of shocked and said, 'I'll take care of it next week,'" says Phason, who hasn't heard from the mayor since.

He also contacted city councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth for help. She looked into the matter and says Phason should have received a letter from the city informing him that his bus was about to be sold. "My understanding is that they sent a [certified] letter to his home," Wedgeworth says. "There's only so many things we can do for him within the city."

Phason is adamant, however, that he never received such a letter, which has to be signed for at delivery. "I never signed anything, and my mom never signed anything," he says.

Manager of Public Safety Tracy Howard also thinks the impound lot acted responsibly, since the paperwork he reviewed indicated that the department made several attempts to contact Phason. "I know Vince," says Howard, who met him several years ago during a neighborhood crime-fighting program. "The city is sympathetic to his circumstances. If there is something we could do to help make things right, we would. I've seen the documents on it, and it appears to me the pound made every effort they could to let him know his vehicle was available."

Phason just wants the city to help him get a bus that's comparable to the one they sold.

"I loved that bus," he says. "I could go to schools and speak, take kids to Broncos camp, go to medical appointments. It had my stereo system and a sack of tools for my wheelchair. I work hard for the city trying to help our kids with football and counseling. I want my bus back."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers