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Chip Drago
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Mundane task to mortal stakes:
Mather lives to tell of carjacking

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
A little after 9 p.m. on a clear and balmy Sunday evening here earlier this month, with his three children snug in their beds, Richard Mather “just decided I had a car wash voucher about to expire so why not” take his 1999 white Volvo sedan around the corner to Griffith Shell at Government and Ann Streets for a cleaning.

Within minutes he would be as removed from the mundane chore of vacuuming out a floorboard as a man can be, and thrust into a misadventure with mortal stakes.

“It was about 9:15, 9:30,” said the 45-year-old Mobile attorney whose 10-year-old practice concentrates on divorce and personal injury cases. “After the car wash, I decided to go ahead and vacuum the interior while I was there.”

A regular patron at the popular service station, Mather noted that the layout of Griffith Shell has the pumps and bays on the west end of the property at the northeast corner of Government and Ann streets. An employee parking lot and customer car storage area to the east separates the station proper from its car wash. Landscaping further obscures the car wash from the station’s main activities.

“I was sitting in the driver’s seat and leaning over the console looking down at the floorboard, making sure everything was put back in its right place when I heard somebody say “Hold up, man. Hold up a minute,’” Mather said. “When I looked up there were three men, three guys. They were running toward me. When I noticed them they were about 15 feet away when they called attention to themselves and they were running at me with a gun pointed at me. The guy in the middle had a .38 revolver. I’m familiar with guns. I couldn’t see down into the cylinder. I couldn’t tell whether it was loaded or not. I had to assume at that point it was a loaded gun.”

About 5’7” and 165-170 pounds, Mather “grew up hunting and handling firearms my whole life.” He has taken several firearms’ courses, he said.

“I know and understand each and every weapon I own – proficiently, I might add,” he said.

But Mather went unarmed on his Sunday night trip to the car wash. And he is glad he did not have a gun. According to Mather, had he been armed and the way events unfolded, he believes he would’ve been in greater danger with a higher risk of injury or death.

His guns were back at his home on South Georgia Avenue where he and his wife, Apryle, both transplants from Hattiesburg, MS, had just put their three children to bed – Thomas, 9, Margaret, 7, and Katherine, 5.

Dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt and crocs, driving a white Volvo sedan (“the Ford Taurus of Europe”), Mather said he presented an “unassuming” figure.

Mather said his immediate reaction was ‘are these guys for real?”

“It took just a minute to process what’s about to take place, if only for a moment, then realizing the serious situation I was in. He stuck the gun into my ribs. ... when you see a gun, you assume it is a loaded weapon. With that said, I assumed this was a loaded weapon and they were prepared to use it ... I really didn’t want to give them a reason to use it on me. So yes, I complied with them until I could take a better assessment of things. They demanded my keys and my wallet (which held about $40). The keys were no problem. They were lying in my lap on my shorts. My wallet I had to dig down pretty deep in my pocket for. That made them pretty nervous. He pressed the gun in my ribs harder.”

“Normally I carry a gun just about everywhere I go,” said Mather. “Thank goodness this time I didn’t have one. I say thank goodness because it happened so fast. I wouldn’t have gotten the gun out before I was shot. I wouldn’t have been able to get a shot off the way they came up on me. But it doesn’t make me rethink where I carry a weapon.”

His assailants were all black men between 18 and 25 years old, said Mather. A couple of them were about 5’10 to 6’0 and the third was about two inches shorter than his partners. All had average builds and wore tee-shirts – one in green, the gunman in gray and the third he couldn’t recall, Mather said.

“As they demanded money and my wallet, they told me to get out of the car and made me stand by the driver’s side to the rear which I did,” said Mather. “I had lost count of how many there were. They were searching the car, one in the driver’s seat and one going back and forth from the front to the rear on the passenger side trying to get in the trunk. They hadn’t been around European cars and they didn’t know how to get in the trunk and I wasn’t going to tell them.”

With the robbers preoccupied with Volvo design intricacies, Mather started edging away, considering fleeing to safety.

“Running, yeah. I had lost count of how many there were. I started taking a couple of steps backward, thinking ... if they don’t notice me, I’m gone; I am gone. I’m headed to the Shell station. Yeah, there were people there. It was a typical Sunday night. There are always people at the Shell station."

“As I was backing up, somebody said, ‘where you going? You ain’t going nowhere.’

“When he said that, the other two looked up to see what the conversation was about. I told them I was getting out of the way so when y’all jump in my car and take off you don’t run over me on the way out. They said ‘uh uh, you’re staying with us.’”

“I said ‘you’ve got my car, my wallet; you got everything you need, so just get out of here,” Mather recalled. “They said, ‘nope, you’re going with us.’”

Mather said he could feel a chemical surge in his body, testosterone, adrenaline or both.

"I was a little concerned, really concerned at that point,” he said.

Mather said the men appeared clear-eyed, coherent, not on drugs.

“I’m not going with y’all,” Mather said he told the men. “Take my car and get out of here.”

“They said ‘Get in the trunk’ and I said ‘I’m not getting in the trunk.’ I felt something jab into my back, a little like, very much like a gun barrel. That’s when I realized where the gunman had gone to, who the gunman was. I had lost count of all the guys and didn’t realize one was behind me and apparently he was the one with the gun.

By that time they had figured out how to get in the trunk (a release handle above the license plate opens the trunk. “If you hit the remote button, it unlocks it, but doesn’t open it; if you turn the key, it doesn’t open it; it just unlocks it,” Mather noted.)

“I felt the gun barrel in my back and made the decision, one decision, the only one I could make,” he said. “I couldn’t guarantee what would happen to me if I resisted right then. If I got in, I’d have five minutes, 30 minutes or an hour, that much more time to figure out how to escape. So there with a gun at my back, they pushed me down in (the trunk),  but with a gun at my back.”

Mather said many people on hearing his story say they never would’ve gotten in the trunk, implying that he’d made a big mistake. However, they miss the obvious flaw in their thinking, Mather pointed out, because he is standing there right in front of them, alive and unharmed, telling them a frightening but not tragic story.

They closed the trunk and “I felt us go backward, then go forward, then go forward again,” he said. “I know we turned right on Government and then right on Ann headed north. As soon as we started moving, with everybody in the car, I worked on how to get out of there, thinking up a plan to get the trunk open and I was going to jump out and run.”

“Then, lying on my right side in the trunk, I realized I’ve got my cell phone. So I quit trying to open the trunk and I called 9-1-1. (Mather’s service provider is T-Mobile. He was and remains satisfied with the company’s performance, he said.)  I told the operator what my name was, that I had been carjacked and put in the trunk of the car at Griffith Shell at Ann and Government streets and I thought we had been headed north about five minutes, maybe just two minutes. I was speaking in a low voice. But there was a lot of road noise in the trunk and I had to speak loud enough to overcome the road noise.”

“The 9-1-1 operator kept trying to get me to reaffirm my name, where I had been, where it occurred, where I was now, could I see anything around me as a landmark,” he said. “I told her I was in the trunk of my car. She said, ‘do you see anything around you that’s a landmark?’ I said, ‘I’m in the trunk. I can’t see anything.’"

"Speaking from experience, the trunk light does go out when the trunk is shut," said Mather. "... she wasn't grasping what the situation was. I said, 'if a call is sent out to look for a white Volvo that’s been carjacked, tell the officers not to engage in a high speed chase because I’m in the trunk of the car.'”

“I began to lose my sense of direction while I was trying to concentrate on getting the operator to clearly understand my situation. They began to turn right, and then left randomly and finally I felt the car come to a hard stop. There was a quick right and a hard stop. Then a quick left and a hard stop. At that point I knew we had reached some destination. I told the operator that. She was still asking for the address at Griffith Shell. I told her the car was stopped and the carjackers were getting out and now I’m putting the phone down or they’ll catch me talking on it. I don’t know what she said because I didn’t give her a chance. I put the phone down. The three guys opened the trunk and immediately demanded to know who I was on the phone with. Apparently, I was talking louder than I thought I was. I wasn’t focusing on them or what was happening to me. I was focusing on getting out of there. I decided to worry about them later. I was worried about me right now. They wanted to know who I was on the phone with and asked for my phone with the gun out pointed generally at my torso. When a gun is pointed at you, it’s just another cell phone, nothing special about that one.

"Once they’d stopped and I put the phone down, I did some mighty tall and mighty quick praying.”

Had he been to church that morning?

“All Saints Episcopal. I think so, yes,” Mather said, adding with a laugh that he definitely without a doubt attended services the following Sunday.

He handed over the phone.

“... they asked me who I was on the phone with and I wouldn’t tell them,” Mather said. “Then he looked through the call list and saw that I’d called 9-1-1 and began saying ‘9-1-1. Oh man, he called the police.’ Another said, ‘he called the police!’ Not quite that calm. Then they started cussing. ‘Sh-t, man. Oh, sh-t, the police.

“The guy with the gun said, ‘what’d you call the police for?’

"I said, ‘because you put me in the trunk at gunpoint and I thought you were gonna kill me. What would you do?’"

"I thought he might retaliate for such a smart aleck comment, but he didn’t say anything. Thereafter, he pressed the gun to my forehead and asked if I had given him all my money, not just what was in my wallet. I said, ‘look, man, you searched my car, you’ve got my wallet. If you don’t believe me, search ‘em again.’ While the gun was at my forehead, I felt my pocket and I had nothing on me except the cell phone case.”

“One of the others said ‘we got to go. He called the police.’ Another said, ‘Come on, man, let’s go, let’s go.”

Then one of the robbers smashed Mather on the forehead. When Mather lifted his face up, the man struck him again near his left eye.

“I thought if I pretend to be knocked out, they’ll leave me alone. So I pretended to be unconscious. Then I thought, with my eyes closed, I can’t see what they’re doing. So I opened my eyes up. Right when they said ‘let’s go,’ two started to run. The other one came back and shut the trunk. I was still in the trunk. He figured it’d take me a long time to get out of there and they’d be long gone. They left with my keys and cell phone. Come to find out I was at Charles and Palmetto streets. I didn’t know that for a while. When the trunk was closed, I first thought they might shoot into the trunk. I was thinking would he shoot based on where he last saw me? Would he shoot from the back passenger side? I tried to minimize myself as a target. After about half a minute, I thought they had gone. Then when I decided it was all quiet and I was safe from gunfire, I immediately began the task of trying to get out of the trunk. The first thing I did was push on the trunk lid, but it had latched. There was no emergency release. Volvo puts everything in cars except an emergency latch. This was a ’99 model. They probably do it by now.

“As I push on the lid I’m trying to figure out the latch from the inside, what makes it open. I realize I’m in a trunk and it’s airtight. I could run out of air. So I rolled over on my back and opened the little door that passes through to the passenger cabin and pushed the armrest out. It’s slender, but creates an air passage to the back seat, maybe six inches wide by seven inches tall. I thought to myself now at least I’ll get air out of the passenger cabin and that’ll buy me some more time. Then I realize my left leg is on top of a case of bottled water. I’m thinking this is not so bad. I’ve got air and water. It was incredibly hot though. But I’ve got time now to figure out how to get the trunk open.”

“The whole time I was in the trunk, I was focusing on how to get out, not whether I was going to live or die. I was focused on getting out of there and getting away from that situation. I made a conscious decision not to let fear about what was going on cloud my judgment. I remember making the decision, ‘I’m not going to give in to fear, I’m going to focus.’ You would be amazed how your mind switches when you make that decision. I think I was clear-headed.”

“All told I was about 15-20 minutes in the trunk. I had pushed on the trunk and I know for a fact that it latched. As I rolled back over onto my right side to work on the latch, the trunk light came on. I thought ‘that’s weird, how’d the trunk light come on, but that’s good. I kept working on the latch but my body was casting a shadow on the latch. Then when I put my hand on the inside top of the trunk, it opened. I just moved my body and it opened. I pulled it back down without closing the latch. I remember thinking when I closed it back, what if I opened it enough that they saw it and if they were there I want the trunk open where I can see them. I opened it enough to look over at the driver’s side and underneath the trunk toward the passenger side. All was clear and all was quiet. I went ahead and got out. I got out in a hurry.”

Mather was in the back of an apartment complex at Charles and Palmetto Streets.

“I looked around. It was all dark. I thought I was in Prichard. The last I knew we were headed north up Ann St. One light was on in one apartment and I knocked on the door and somebody asked, ‘who is it?’ I said, ‘My name is Richard Mather. I was just carjacked and dropped off here and I’d like to call the police.’ They again said, ‘who is this?’ I said, ‘My name is Richard Mather and you don’t have to open the door if you don’t want to. Call the police and say I was carjacked and dropped off at this apartment complex.' Then I saw a blind part in the window. I held my arms out to show I was not meaning anybody any harm. A man I now know as Coach Davis (at Williamson High School) came outside, got his loaded weapon in case they came back and informed me his wife was on the phone with the police. In a matter of minutes, three units roll up.

“I’m not glad it happened, though I’m not angry. I put myself in a bad position by not being as wary as I guess I should’ve been. All I want to see is that they are caught and brought to justice. Crime happens. It is now a fact of life that crime happens. The question is: what are you doing to make yourself less of a target?

The Mather family is moving to Baldwin County, but that was in the works well before the carjacking. Mrs. Mather accepted a job teaching at Daphne East Elementary.

“Life just pushed us in that direction,” Mather said.

“A lot of people said they never would’ve gotten into the trunk,” said Mather. “When we play out scenarios in our minds, I said the same thing. Experts will tell you never let an attacker take you to a second location. In our minds, we play out scenarios of what we would do if we were in that position. I’ve discovered in doing that, we leave ourselves a way out, an escape, or our attacker makes an error and we take advantage of it to get out of the situation. But in real life, you find the scenario that you played out in your mind is seldom like what goes on in real life. It all happened in the wink of an eye. Three hoods around me with a gun at my side. Even if I’ve got a gun, the other two overpower me and the gunman could’ve shot and killed me. Your actions are based on the situation that is on you, not the situation that you’ve played out in your mind, a 'what if' world."

Mather said Mobile police detective David Marston was skeptical of his account. Marston didn’t criticize his decisions, but wasn’t initially “convinced I was telling the truth,” according to Mather. Mather wasn’t offended to be doubted, he said, because he knows the police get a lot of bogus calls and an investigator has to satisfy himself of the legitimacy of the complaint.

Police say they are making “slow progress” on the case, said Mather.

“No arrests,” reported Mobile Police Department spokesman John Young. “It’s still under investigation.”

Stephen Griffith, who co-owns Griffith Shell with his brother Preston, said, “We’re extremely disappointed that it happened and we were very concerned for Richard and are glad he’s okay.”

Griffith said a surveillance camera would be added to increase security at the car wash area. He said the station already has five security cameras elsewhere on the property.

"CBE, a local technology company, is working up a price to put a camera over there," Griffith said. "It will be installed within 60 days."

Increased lighting is not an option, he said, because the station already has the maximum lighting allowed within the historic district.

"If anybody wants to second guess and say I did the wrong thing, I’m telling you that I am living proof that I did everything exactly as I should have," Mather said. "Nobody but me was there so nobody has the ability to second guess what I did. I’m glad to be here to argue with them about it. If they want to do it differently than I did, they are welcome to do so."

"What I did was exactly right in that situation because I lived to tell the tale.”
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