Fireworks, Jell-o and ... being tirejacked in South Bethany?

“Who steals just one car tire in South Bethany?”

I’ve heard this question a dozen times since the Fourth of July, and I still don’t have an answer.

All I know is that between 9:15 and 9:45 p.m. on July 4, someone stole a single wheel — yes, the tire and wheel both, lug nuts included — from my Honda Accord, which was parked in the parking lot of a local business. True story: I was tire-jacked.

I work part-time at a South Bethany restaurant. After closing our doors on July 4, my coworkers and I flocked to the beach to watch fireworks. We returned 30 minutes later, leaping into our cars, ready to escape holiday traffic.

Typically, when people hit the gas pedal, cars are expected to move. But my (my mom’s, technically) Honda growled, grinded and refused to budge. Thinking the tiny car was perhaps stuck on a concrete parking block, I walked around the front to find the problem.

That’s when my night of revelry sobered up. The front passenger-side tire was missing. The entire wheel, rim and lug nuts were absent. I knew a tire had been there earlier that day, having parked the car myself. Now, the car wasn’t even resting on a brick — it just sat on a bare hub.

My car had been reduced to a tricycle.

After a mild outburst of verbal abuse directed toward the (alleged) car, I remained calm for the rest of the night, having trained my emotions to play dead at the smallest sign of trouble.

I called the police and explained my predicament. Several of my coworkers are incurably good people who stayed for another hour-plus, for moral support and to search for the missing tire. (Sometimes thieves simply hide the loot, it seems, then return after the coast is clear.)

My employers subsequently revealed that they hadn’t accompanied us to the fireworks because they saw two suspicious young men wandering in the back parking lot after we left. Although the boss-people kept an eye on things, my little Honda Accord was well hidden between a van and an SUV, in my usual spot. The thieves had just enough time and darkness to nab a tire and escape from the fumes of the nearby trash.

Did I mention that my friends were supposed to be enjoying an employee supper at this point? Most of them had already left for the destination but, unfortunately for them, most of the food was still with me and my (alleged) car. By that point, the only thing celebrating independence was my tire, it having been liberated from the rest of my car in a dark parking lot.

I was eating a lovely, decidedly non-celebratory, Independence Day Jell-o cup when the police arrived, and Cpl. Smith told me something I didn’t expect: Thieves often steal just one tire from a car — on purpose.

It’s clever, really. The victim then abandons her car overnight, planning to save towing dollars by buying a replacement to bring back to the car and fix the problem another day. That’s when the thieves return to the darkened scene, snatching the rest of the full set of tires. That leaves the driver with a gutted vehicle and only the fond memory of mobility — all because some punks confused the Quiet Resorts with the inner city.

Everyone was surprised that this crime happened in a quiet, yet fortune-favored beach neighborhood. Even Delaware State Police Public Information Officer Gary Fournier said he believed this was an isolated incident.

So what can we do besides shake our heads and say, “I expected better of you, the Quiet Resorts”?

I admit to sulking briefly, but I never got very upset, because this was practically a non-issue. Although I never found the rogue tire, the police report notes that the crime was not gun-related, and no victims were injured or deceased. I was surrounded by friends, reinforced by Jell-o and blessed with a spare tire and just enough lug nuts scavenged from my car’s other wheels to drive home again. So, let’s be honest — if you’re going to be the victim of a crime, that’s my kind of crime.