Kathleen Zini and her family had nothing left but the keys to their U-Haul after thieves stole their truck and everything in it.
“Everything we own just gone like that overnight,” the young mother told The Reveal investigators.
Just before Christmas, the family was moving from Florida to Alabama. They decided to stop at a hotel for the night in Macon, Ga. Locked inside the 26-foot U-Haul truck were all of the family’s household belongings.
The parents said they chose Macon to rest themselves and their three young children because they feared the crime in a big city like Atlanta. However, avoiding the big city did nothing to protect them from the thieves.
The following day, Zini said, “my husband’s looking out the window, and he said, ‘the U-Haul’s gone.'”
Around 11:23 p.m., the hotel’s surveillance video shows three men walking towards the truck. The three men could start the truck, without keys, and within minutes were able to drive off with the truck and all of its belongings.
The family had no insurance other than the U-Haul’s policy because the closing on their home still had another two days to go.
According to U-Haul’s advertised SafeMove cargo insurance that covers “collision, fire, windstorm, or overturn.” However, the fine print shows that “theft, burglary or robbery of cargo” has no coverage by the Company. U-Haul has no option to buy the theft coverage, except for the stolen truck itself.
“It wasn’t just a vehicle stolen,” Zini said. “It was our entire house, our entire livelihood, our whole lives, our memories from our children’s birth, everything that we had was stolen.”
Days later, the rented U-Haul was found abandoned off 1-20 in Dekalb County. Except for an upright piano and some children’s toys, the truck was empty, according to photos provided by Zini.
“The first thing we did was we had to buy our kids pajamas and just clothes because all we had was an overnight bag,” she said. “And then, our bank accounts were compromised.”
Inside one of the boxes, the thieves found a checkbook.
Three stolen checks for $700 to $900 had attempted to be cashed by someone in Atlanta. Although the bank recovered the losses, it was a struggle for the family to rebuild their lives with a compromised bank account.
According to the Bibb County Sherrif’s Office in Macon, the Zini’s rental truck was not the only one stolen. The Sherrif’s office is investigating five cases. The office provided four incident reports of theft from 2020 to 2021.
Investigators said all of the trucks were abandoned in or around Atlanta, 80 miles to the north.
Authorities believe the cases are related. They suspect an organized crime circle from Atlanta focusing on Macon parking lots and possibly other cities’ parking lots.
“They all appear to have the same description, and when they leave the area, they all end up in the Atlanta area,” investigator Steven Fields from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office told 11Alive.
Macon investigators did not dust the Zinis’ U-Haul for prints. Investigator Fields told 11Alive that police were not called when U-Haul recovered the vehicle in DeKalb County.
U-Haul told 11Alive, “if U-Haul personnel identifies stolen or abandoned equipment and can recover that equipment, we must contact the customer and the police.”
Investigator Fields told 11Alive that he learned U-Haul had recovered the Zinis’ rental truck directly from Kathleen Zini. U-Haul “had actually contacted her, and she contacted us,” Fields said.
Any prints from the vehicle would be worthless because other people had been through the truck, the investigator said. Another hindrance to the investigation is that the thieves sometimes wear gloves.
11Alive asked U-Haul to comment on their steps to help Kathleen Zini and her family.
“U-Haul notified the customer referenced in your inquiry upon finding their stolen moving truck. U-Haul sympathizes with any customer who is a victim of theft. In addition to the loss of the customer’s belongings, the truck was damaged, and the catalytic converter was stolen. The Company, under no obligation to do so, refunded in full the customer’s rental charges ($846.39) as a measure of goodwill and compassion,” the Company wrote.
Zini confirmed she received the refund “after the issue had to be escalated several times. They were all very rude whenever I called, and they certainly weren’t quick or eager to give a refund,” she said.
A license plate is crucial.
Because the contract was still in the vehicle, Kathleen Zini and her family still had the key to their stolen U-Haul but no license plate number to give to responding deputies.
Bibb County deputies could not find a license plate number immediately after the theft. The initial police report for the Zinis’ stolen U-Haul only had the inventory number.
U-Haul told 11Alive the inventory number “is the most relevant number to include on a small space like a key tag for U-Haul purposes. As the license number is included on customer contracts (both printed and emailed versions), manually adding more numbers to more than 176,000 key tags could potentially lead to more human error and confusion than benefit.”
U-Haul provided a list of safety tips, including always park in a well-lit area, do not leave keys in the truck where others can access them, avoid loading your possessions into the truck or trailer and leaving it parked and unattended at any time, particularly overnight, if this can be helped.
The Zinis told 11Alive they followed all of U-Haul’s tips that applied except the suggestion that they do not leave the loaded truck “parked and unattended at any time, particularly overnight.”