Backstory: The story of an unlocked car and a mystery ring

It was a typical December day in the Boston area: The Bruins had lost again and it was cold - a high of 31 degrees. At the train station in suburban Westborough, one commuter left his car among the endless rows of Priuses and Honda Pilots that park there every day. But, inexplicably - perhaps in haste - he left his door unlocked on this day.

It would turn out to be a fortuitous move. When he returned more than 12 hours later, shuffling to his car with the other frost- breathing commuters, he noticed a box, with a white ribbon, sitting on the front seat.

"Merry Christmas," a note said. "Thank you for leaving your car door unlocked. Instead of stealing your car I gave you a present. Hopefully this will land in the hands of someone you love, for my love is gone now. Merry Christmas to you."

Inside was a three-diamond ring set on a white-gold band. Its value: $15,000.

It took days for the commuter to tell police, but once he did and a local newspaper reporter noticed it going through the weekly police blotter, the story ricocheted from London to Los Angeles to Oprah. It has become Westborough's own Lord of the Rings saga.

The fascination with the tale runs from the curious to the psychological: Why did he do it? Why this commuter rail station, one known for petty crime? And, most of all, who did it? Is it a tragedy or a fairy tale? Is it all just a hoax?

"You don't hear something like this every day," says Ross Atamian, a local commuter, who, like many area residents, has been captivated by the story since it broke earlier this month.

Of course, a few unusual acts of kindness - what Indiana University Professor Leslie Lenkowsky calls "Miracle on 34th Street" deeds - always seem to surface this time of year. Some are serial. Each year a priest in Los Angeles, for instance, hands out $15,000 in one dollar bills to the poor and homeless on L.A.'s Skid Row.

Others are more spontaneous. Earlier this month, a column in The Toledo Blade of Ohio recounted the story of a woman who worked at a local mini-mart. When a customer asked her how she was, she said not good - no money to buy her daughter Christmas presents. The stranger handed her a wad of $20 bills, and left.

"People feel a little more sentimental at this time of year," says Mr. Lenkowsky, a philanthropic studies professor.

But the incident in Westborough, a quiet suburb 45 minutes West of Boston that sits on the Rt. 495 high-tech loop, has the added element of anonymity and mystery. The protagonists are unknown and the denouement far from final.

Here is what the town does know, or at least is willing to talk about: The commuter is a 37-year-old man from a neighboring community. The parking lot, which has been a target of crime, has more than 300 slots, all usually taken by 7:15 a.m.

The commuter waited four days before telling police about the incident, after he got the ring appraised. Authorities are not releasing his name. He told them he will return it if someone comes forward to claim it. From there, the mysteries begin.

As people pine for answers, the Westborough Police Department has become the unwitting narrator in a novel everyone wants to know the resolution to. After all, no one else is talking. Whom else do you call?

All this is testing the patience of a department that would rather be solving thefts than talking to producers from Australian TV. The department sits on a quiet street lined with Queen Anne and Greek Revival homes in a town first settled in 1675. On this day, the waiting area - just a few chairs and a few brochures on local elderly services - stands empty. Not the kind of a place used to being in the grip of a national story.

"No comment," bellows one lieutenant to his colleague, who was en route to tell yet another visitor that no more press inquiries about the "ring story" are being accepted.

Two visits later, however, and Lt. Paul Donnelly is talking. At least a little. The lieutenant, whose inbox is topped with a photo of the ring, marvels at the momentum of the story, which has come in between officers trying to handle burglar alarms and ambulance calls. "In 33 years I have never seen anything like it," he says.

Across the street, in a classic New England downtown of brick buildings that evoke an earlier time when sleighs and straw hats were made here, Ed Healy, who owns Westborough Spectacle Shoppe, eagerly shares his hypotheses. He first heard about it from the buzz in the store. But late that night he and his wife got talking. "I thought the worst," he says. "It seems really sad that someone would give up that ring, someone had to be heartbroken."

He says his wife has a less morbid view, that unrequited love alone could have precipitated such a dramatic move. "It was a pretty in-depth conversation," he says. "Ten minutes. That's pretty long after 34 years of marriage."

Around the corner, Faris Casten is less eager to talk about the story, but then says what's on her mind. "It's a sad story," says Ms. Casten, cleaning flowerpots and arranging displays for the holiday rush. "People are talking about it like it's the best thing since sliced bread."

She says that if it had just been a matter of rejection, the man would likely want the money back. "He wouldn't just give it to anybody in a parking lot," she theorizes.

But these days, it's no longer just any parking lot. It's now a lot of fantasy. On a recent weekday morning, at about the same time the anonymous commuter would have been traveling, Mr. Atamian sits in his black Honda, the engine running, as he waits for the train. He looks out at hundreds of cars that fill every single space.

He, like everyone else, still has so many questions. How did the guy know which car to choose? Did he go car-to-car to see who left the doors unlocked? How many handles did he jiggle? And, more to the point, could his have been one of them?

Atamian, a part-time disc jockey, lights up with the thought. But then, after a pause, he dismisses it: "It's a once in a lifetime thing."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.