Julia Wilkinson left Charlotte on a recent Wednesday with her mother, Mary, on a plane headed west, having every intention of scattering her father's ashes in the redwood forest of California.
The women never made it to the national park 350 miles north of San Francisco, though, and on Tuesday morning, the pair returned home to North Carolina with psychological scars but also full of gratitude – while hanging onto those same ashes for dear life.
The several-days-long emotional roller coaster began shortly after Julia and Mary Wilkinson hit the ground in the Bay Area. They'd picked northern California as their late loved one's final resting place because it had long been a favorite travel destination of Joe Wilkinson's; he died last August from a heart attack, he would have turned 57 April 13, the whole trip was designed around taking him to Redwood National Park on his birthday for a celebration of his life.
After arriving in San Francisco, Julia said she and her mother decided to kill the time before their Airbnb accommodations would be ready by kicking around Fisherman's Wharf. So they parked their rented 2016 Hyundai Elantra in a nearby deck, locked their suitcases and Mary's red Coach purse in the trunk, and spent the next three hours lunching on Dungeness crabs (a beloved delicacy of Joe's), feeding sea lions at the pier, and shopping for souvenirs.
It was a joy-filled start to their trip. But upon returning to their rental car and realizing someone had jimmied the trunk open, all of that was forgotten in an instant.
Julia, eyes wide: "Where the hell is my suitcase?"
Mary, panicking: "Is it in the backseat?"
Julia, her mind racing: "No, I know we put it in the trunk."
Mary, looking over to the left: "Oh my God – they took my wallet." In it: $800 in cash and gift cards earmarked for the trip.
Then, Mary, digging through her purse: "Oh my God – they've taken your father." Cherry-picked right out of her Coach bag: the velvet case containing the scattering tube.
"At this point, I was in complete utter shock," said Julia, 30, talking to the Observer by phone from San Francisco on Saturday afternoon. "I didn't even know how to feel, how to react, what to do."
She said they made a series of attempts to get someone to help them:
Mary called 911, but the dispatcher wouldn't send anyone out. Julia hunted down a parking-garage employee, who simply told her, "Wow, you're the third person who's had their car broken into here today." They tried to call the police directly, but were advised to file a report online. Security cameras turned out to be no help, because their vehicle and the stairwell next to it were both in blind spots. Julia demanded to speak with a manager, but the best he could do was an apology and an offer to reimburse them for their $32 parking fee. They rang the police department again, hoping to reach someone with more sympathy, but got the same response.
"The fact that the police didn't care that a human's remains had been taken is really irritating," Julia said Saturday. "My luggage and her wallet – obviously, those things can be replaced. My dad's ashes cannot be replaced. It's been very frustrating to have to go through all of this, and emotional, too. It's like losing him all over again – literally."
After several exasperating hours that got them nowhere, Julia said a friend back in Charlotte put Julia in touch with Michael Bodley, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Bodley published a story about the family's ordeal that caught the attention of local TV news stations, and it snowballed its way into the San Francisco Police Department's consciousness.
By April 13 – Joe Wilkinson's birthday – Julia said two officers had agreed to meet the Wilkinsons at the parking deck to go over the details, to fingerprint the Hyundai, to look over footage from the security cameras the garage did have. When they arrived, news trucks were there, too.
From that point on, police stayed in close contact with the family and were chasing down all the leads they could, according to Julia. But by that Saturday, she seemed to be running out of optimism.
"We're definitely ready to go home," said Julia, who works as a property manager in Charlotte, by phone that afternoon. (Mary works for Hearst; the family has lived in Charlotte since Julia was 13.) "The only reason we did not (leave early) is because it would have cost us money to have our flights changed, and we already had lots stolen. So we said, 'It's not worth the money, it's not worth the time and the hassle. We should just stay here, do what we can to try to find Dad and make the most out of what we have.'
"I'm trying to have high hopes, and I'm trying to pray that a miracle can happen, because I do believe in that. But honestly ... I don't know. I'm just hoping that he's not in a trash can somewhere."
Just hours after she hung with the Observer, that miracle happened.
As Julia and Mary were driving back from a visit to Muir Woods National Monument, still sick to their stomachs from the emotional trauma, a lieutenant reached them to say that Joe's remains had been recovered. No arrest had been made, but a man turned them in to a plainclothes officer that afternoon, Julia said the lieutenant told them; they could come by and reclaim the ashes anytime.
"We were bawling," Julia said Sunday. "There were so many emotions again coming over us, just knowing that he would be safe and with us again and not out in who-knows-where."
After retrieving the scattering tube from the precinct, Julia and Mary could finally celebrate Joe's birthday – with wine and sushi ("my dad loved sushi," Julia said).
And though it wasn't clear what their plans were for Monday, their last full day in San Francisco, one thing was certain no matter where they go or what they do: Joe's ashes would not stay in the trunk of their rental car.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Never again. Lesson learned – unfortunately, the hard way" said Julia, who with her mom will bring his remains back to North Carolina, and now are thinking someday they might scatter them in Joe's hometown of Philadelphia.
"I mean, it was a one-in-a-million shot, but I kept saying, 'I believe in good things coming,' 'I believe in good things coming' – that's one of my main mantras. Even when things are s(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK), I believe in the good things coming. There's always a silver lining, I feel like."