Ashraf Khalil, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
Investigators have broken up an auto theft ring that allegedly used a mole inside a General Motors dealership and a locksmith to steal more than 200 luxury SUVs worth up to $8 million, authorities said Wednesday.
Detectives said the large and unusually sophisticated ring received information from the dealer on how to get around the vehicles' costly alarm systems. The suspects also took great care to make their stolen vehicles seem legitimate, so they could be resold to unsuspecting buyers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, authorities said.
"These suspects were so good ... the average person out in the community would not know" that they were buying a stolen vehicle, said Long Beach Det. Joe Starbird, the case's lead investigator. "It would look like a legitimate purchase."
Added Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca: "Many unknowing buyers are riding around in stolen trucks right now."
A nine-month investigation involving six area police agencies culminated in a series of early-morning raids Tuesday. Police arrested 23 suspects, including nine of the theft ring's 12 core members, authorities said. The remaining suspects, three brothers from Honduras, remain at large, Baca said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has filed 40 felony counts against the suspects, including grand theft auto, operating a "chop shop" and altering vehicle identification numbers.
The group allegedly specialized in high-end sport utility vehicles and pickups, including Cadillac Escalades, GMC Yukons and Chevrolet Avalanches.
Authorities said the ring employed a multi-step system that gave them easy access to the cars with minimal risk.
First, the suspects allegedly would identify trucks they were interested in taking.
"What they were looking for was a vehicle parked in a residential neighborhood that was easily accessible," Starbird said.
Thieves on the street would record the vehicle identification number, normally visible through the windshield, and relay it to their "inside man" at a Southern California GM dealership (authorities didn't reveal which dealer or what county it is in).
He used that information to obtain the vehicle's "key code," which a locksmith then used to make a duplicate key, police said.
The suspects then allegedly watched the car to determine when it would be most vulnerable, then used the duplicate key to get in and drive off.
They focused on getting in and away in under a minute and quickly abandoned the attempt if they encountered any difficulty, detectives said.
They usually walked away from cars with the Club steering wheel lock or a secondary "kill switch" system that stops the ignition without the right electronic signal, police said.
Starbird said that during the lengthy surveillance of the suspects he witnessed one struggle to revive a car whose ignition had gone dead due to a "kill switch" system.
"It was pretty comical," he said.
Once in possession of a car, the suspects would park it elsewhere for several days to determine if it was equipped with a tracking device, a process Baca called "a cooling-off period."
If no one reclaimed it, they would take the car, replace the VIN with a counterfeit number, re-register it with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and either ship it overseas or sell it locally through newspaper ads.
The only tipoff, Baca said, was the "too good to be true" prices -- often about half of the vehicle's worth.
Several of the arrested suspects are Honduran or Salvadoran nationals who have previously been arrested for similar crimes and deported, Baca said.
"And here they are back in the United States, doing the exact same thing," he said.
Investigators said they began unraveling the ring in November, when a stolen Escalade equipped with a Lojack tracking device was found in Long Beach, apparently in its cooling-off period. Officers placed the vehicle under surveillance and watched as three suspects drove it to a local glass shop and then began switching the VIN.
The three suspects were arrested. Detectives said they eventually linked the suspects to a series of thefts in L.A. and Orange counties.
The investigation also uncovered the Southern California car dealership where an employee allegedly accessed security information on cars that later turned up stolen. That alleged inside man was among those arrested Tuesday.
The investigation was handled by the Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles, Pasadena and Long Beach police departments, California Highway Patrol and Orange County's regional auto theft task force.
Eventually, Starbird said, investigators were able to predict which cars would be targeted by the theft ring.
Several months of surveillance by the Los Angeles County Taskforce for Regional Auto Theft Prevention produced a detailed profile of the theft-ring's core leaders and methods.
Investigators are now poring over the evidence and will attempt to reunite owners with their stolen cars, which could be bad news for those who recently got great deals on SUVs.
"There will probably be some surprised recent auto buyers out there when we show up," Starbird said.
June 22, 2006
Calif.: 23 held in unusually sophisticated SUV theft ring probe