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The Great Garfield Car Window Toy Craze

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Police in Los Angeles had a problem. Over the span of five months in late 1987, more than 40 vehicles had seen their windows smashed in. When officers arrived on the scene to take reports, they were surprised to find stereos, purses, and other valuables had been left behind.

In most cases, the only thing missing was a plush Garfield that was last seen hanging from one of the car windows.

The cheap toy, which was about six-and-a-half inches tall and used suction cups on the paws to adhere to the glass, retailed for roughly $20. A new side window might set the owner back $140.

"They’d be better off," detective Ken DeBie told the Associated Press, "if they stuck the cat on the outside of the car."

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Debuting in 1978, Garfield’s destiny as a merchandising phenomenon was no accident. Creator Jim Davis was a former advertising agency employee who had very specific notions about what kind of comic strip character would be appealing to the same licensees who had made Charles Schulz a very rich man by marketing his Peanuts cast at retail.

Davis knew items bearing the likeness of Charlie Brown were outsold by Snoopy, who made bestsellers out of everything from sno-cone machines to telephones: Garfield was a direct response to cat owners who might have felt slighted by the lack of a feline hero on the comics page.

By 1981, Garfield’s lasagna-smeared face was a big enough licensing success for Davis to start Paws, Inc., a business devoted exclusively to sifting through the merchandising opportunities available. Although the syndicate owned those rights, Davis profited handsomely from them—and eventually had the capital to buy them outright in 1994 for an estimated $15 to $20 million.

In between, Davis had been struck with an idea for a product that promised to be significantly different than the T-shirts, posters, and calendars that were in wide circulation: the artist told mental_floss in 2014 that he took a plush Garfield and attached Velcro to his paws with the expectation people would be amused enough to hang him on their curtains.

When he got the prototype back, the factory had made an error and placed suction cups on instead. Davis wasn't too bothered; since they adhered well to glass, he assumed people might want to apply it to residential windows.

"It came back as a mistake with suction cups," Davis said. "They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars."

Davis assigned the license to Dakin, a veteran manufacturer of plush toys that once employed future Beanie Baby ringleader Ty Warner. When the toy—which was marketed as Garfield Stuck on You—debuted in mid-1987, consumers were in the middle of a car decorating frenzy, having scooped up everything from Baby on Board signs to fuzzy dice to opinionated bumper stickers. It was a practice that had started with hanging fake beaver tails from Model Ts in the 1920s.

Garfield was already a proven commodity, and the marriage of cat to car decoration was a gold mine. Dakin sold two million in the first year alone, making it the biggest success in the company's 30-year history. In a rare move for the plush industry, the company even produced a television commercial. For a time, it seemed like every other car on the road bore the character’s smirking expression.

Acknowledging a phenomenon, the media tried to identify what made the toy so pervasive. Speaking with The Santa Fe New Mexican, pop culture analyst Michael Marsden said that cars had become a mobile living room, with drivers wanting to express their identities with stickers and window decals. With his caustic sense of humor, Garfield could broadcast his owner’s sense of irreverence.

Naturally, copycats followed. Pee-wee Herman, ALF, and other '80s pop culture icons had suction cups glued to their hands. In one instance, a company marketing a line called Krushed Kats that appeared to be felines abandoned and mangled in trunks came under fire from humane societies for making a joke of cruelty to animals. 

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Dakin itself wasn’t immune to the hysteria, selling smaller Garfields for $7.97, marketing Odie, and trying to create their own proprietary passenger with Goro the Gorilla. None sold as well as the orange pioneer.

It wouldn’t last. With $50 million in sales, Garfield Stuck on You squeezed in just as the plush industry was about to go into hibernation before the Beanie Baby revival of the mid-1990s. In 1988, the category was down 44 percent at the wholesale level.

Dakin eventually merged with onetime rival Applause in 1991 and began to look for a licensed hit that could recapture Garfield’s success, but it would prove to be a hard act to follow. In 2004, Davis’s Paws, Inc. reported over $750 million in annual revenue. No other cartoon cat was going to move product like his.

1988 also marked the end of the crime spree that had confounded Southern California law enforcement. Arrested on an unrelated charge, a burglary suspect told police that some of his adolescent friends had taken to stealing the plush toys from cars in order to give them to their girlfriends as gifts. Dakin promised to send replacements to anyone who mailed in their copy of the burglary report.

The thieves also took two Sylvester the Cats.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols's life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

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