The Nova: Officer Michael Crain and Unfinished Love at Memorial Car Show

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Michael Crain's 1970 Nova sat on the asphalt between two open garages in an industrial park in Riverside where The Old Farts Racing Club members work on restoring classic cars. This is Bill's Place -- his son Larry got married here, and as he said, "We've had funerals here, too."

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Photo: Douglas McCulloh

But today was neither. The Nova, primer-gray like raincloud, was an icon that everyone wanted to see, to honor the owner who would never finish restoring it. Officer Crain was sitting in the passenger seat of his patrol car 32 days ago when he was shot and killed by former LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner. Hundreds of people showed up Sunday for a memorial car show.

Cindy Crain. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Cindy Crain, Michael's mother, stood near the Nova, watching Michael's nephews Christopher and Tyler Camonte play around near the front bumper. Her eyes still filled with tears while we talked -- 32 days and she was exhausted. "We were at Santa Anita yesterday," she said. "They did the third race for Michael Crain -- his picture was up on the screen, and we went in the winner's circle after." She put her hands on her face. "It's hard to see. But I just want him to be remembered." Then she straightened her back. "His son Ian will get the car when he's 16."

Christopher Camonte and Michael Crain's 1970 Nova. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Maybe a car with less muscle, we all suggested, for a new driver, and then we laughed. Crain's best friend since junior high, Rob Frazer, who called him brother, stood nearby. "We've had so many offers," he said. "People seem to have a need to restore it. Almost more for them to do something, to help."

Oscar Gonzalez and Octavio Magana. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Walking up to peer into the windows were two officers in tan uniform -- Oscar Gonzalez and Octavio Magana, Riverside CHP. They made the rounds of the car show -- classic cars, trucks, and motorcycles lined the streets of the industrial park, their owners and families and friends sitting in groups behind their vehicles or strolling past the open hoods showing off restored engines. "I lost my brother-in-law in the line of duty in 2009," Magana told me. "Rialto PD. It's something you never get over."

Beside his 1959 Ford Galaxie Skyline, with all original parts down to the seats, a carhop tray attached to the driver window, Bob Gonzales said, "This is about brotherhood." He drove in from Long Beach with four other retired officers.

Nick Gutierrez, Mike Terry, Leonard Scheid, and Juan Tejada of the Badgers Emergency Vehicle Association. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

"You have to support the brothers in blue, whether they wear tan and green, or blue," Mike Terry said, further down the line, near the 1988 Dodge Diplomat he'd brought, a true CHP restoration vehicle. "When it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us." Terry retired from the Torrance Police Department, lives in Santa Clarita, and came down to the show with other members of The Badgers Emergency Vehicle Association, a car club which restores actual law enforcement vehicles or those converted for law enforcement, like the 1968 Plymouth Belvedere used by an LAPD Metro SWAT team and brought by Leonard Scheid, retired from Hermosa Beach Police Department. Nick Gutierrez brought a 1988 Dodge Diplomat used by the Oakland Police Department.

Juan Tejeda. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

But Juan Tejeda had the best story of all, standing beside his 1927 Dodge 4-Screen Paddy Wagon. Yes, a paddy wagon, with metal grill and wooden gate at the back. Born in Compton, retired in 2006 from 35 years of law enforcement, starting with LAPD in 1972 when he returned from Vietnam and ending as a Santa Barbara Sheriff's Deputy, he found the "rustbucket" abandoned in a farmyard in Goleta in 1987. He knew the truck had been used to transport prisoners from the county jail to state prisons in various locations. He knew the inmates at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo did auto restoration, upholstery and engine renovation. "Because it was a government vehicle," Tejeda said, "they did it. It took 3,000 man hours, more than a year. One day, when they were starting on the engine, I backed it in, and I saw an older inmate looking at it. He yelled, 'Hey! I rode in one a those!'"

The Badgers go to benefit car shows to help wounded veterans, fallen law enforcement officers, and will head next to Castaic Days. Terry gestured at the line of black-and-whites, "These are cars that a lot of us remember working in -- we couldn't wait to get out of them, and now we restore them."

Regina and Cindy Crain. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

When Steve Johnson and Denise Wasson Martinez, Bill Wasson's daughter, decided to hold the car show at Bill's Place, the registration was limited to 200 cars. Johnson said, "We gave out 1,200 flyers, and then I printed half-sheets, and that was 3,000." Back at Michael Crain's Nova, smoke from the grill where the Old Farts offered tri-tip sandwiches (meat donated by Riverside restaurant Back Street) floated over the car like incense. Regina Crain, Michael's wife, arrived and her mother-in-law hugged her near the hood. She met Crain at a dance club in Redlands -- she used to do events for KCAL, the Inland Empire radio station. At her husband's funeral, she played Lynryd Skynyrd's song, "A Simple Man." Hundreds of people all around, but her husband is still gone -- and when all of the cars have driven slowly away, though the memories do remain, and the Nova will be lovingly restored, the owner will not sit in that driver seat. "He wanted to fix it up," his mother said to me, her hands touching her sunglasses again, her eyes shimmering behind. "He'd do a little, get jazzed, and then have to wait for months because of work, and kids." Behind her, the sounds of engines throbbed in the wind, as more classic cars pulled up, more people from all over California come to see that Nova.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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What a fine tribute and memorial for Michael Crain. I'm so glad the Nova will have a happy ending. The carhop tray on the Ford Galaxie Skyline reminds me of my carhop days at Oscar's Drive-In at the traffic circle in Long Beach.


What a great image that leaves me with! I loved the Galaxie - and the paddy wagon.


What a great image that leaves me with! I loved the Galaxie - and the paddy wagon.