So many cars stolen in San Diego

P.S., your car is gone

Tools of the trade

Greg Garver has the look of a man who knows his way around dual carbs. More precisely, with a rounded mustache and goatee on his boyish face, he looks like rock star Bob Seger, which is a decided advantage for a man in Garver’s line of work: undercover investigation of auto theft for the California Highway Patrol. Who could ever imagine being arrested by a thirty-five-year-old guy in a T-shirt and jeans who appears to be more interested in torque wrenches and backseat grappling than in felony warrants?

Here and gone. Nineteen percent more cars were stolen last year (17,598) as compared to 1984 (14,777) in San Diego County.

Here and gone. Nineteen percent more cars were stolen last year (17,598) as compared to 1984 (14,777) in San Diego County.

“Most of these criminals are innovative,” Garver says by way of explanation for his need to be crafty. “And their intelligence runs from zero to extensive.” Garver is one of four investigators working out of the CHP offices on Camino del Rio South, overlooking Jack Murphy Stadium. Together they’re responsible for developing cases against professional auto thieves working throughout San Diego, Orange, and Riverside counties. The nineteen percent jump in the number of cars stolen last year (17,598) as compared to 1984 (14,777) in San Diego County has meant at least this to Garver and his colleagues: they never get bored at work.

Sgt. Joe Ortiz: “We do have an extradition treaty with Mexico, but Mexico just won’t extradite its citizens.”

Sgt. Joe Ortiz: “We do have an extradition treaty with Mexico, but Mexico just won’t extradite its citizens.”

Car thieves are among the most creative of crooks. One case Garver recently worked on involved a foolproof method for defeating most car theft alarms. The thief, Terrell McLaurin, who is now in prison, didn't bother to break into the cars he wanted; he merely pulled up in his tow truck, which was also stolen, and hooked it up to the booty. Then he towed it away.

Confiscated vehicle identification numbers

Confiscated vehicle identification numbers

Before Garver caught up to him, McLaurin had had some success heisting cars. He towed an ’81 Porsche 911SC last year and then made only a small change in the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), located on the left side pillar post along the windshield. He snipped off one number and one letter and put the plate back in place. Then he sold it to a local car dealer for $7500. Of course the dealer took it to the Department of Motor Vehicles to have the VIN number checked before he purchased the car. But the DMV clerk didn’t notice the shortened VIN, and it serhowed up clean on the state’s compute^. McLaurin drove off in his stolen tow truck with a fast $7500.

Expert approaches car.

Expert approaches car.

Break-in

Break-in

Hop to front seat.

Hop to front seat.

Ready to start car. Elapsed time: 4.5 seconds.

Ready to start car. Elapsed time: 4.5 seconds.

A few weeks later, McLaurin went back to the dealership. Rainbow Auto Imports on Garnet Avenue, with an '84 Mercedes-Benz sedan he had towed. McLaurin, using an alias, had already gotten a legitimate title for the vehicle. He had gone to the DMV with the explanation that he had purchased the car from his father, who he said owned a junkyard. He claimed the car had been left for salvage at the junkyard and its papers were lost. In fact, he had fabricated an entirely new VIN plate but had left off four numbers. Again, the DMV didn’t notice the missing numbers, and McLaurin, using the alias Terrell Mack, received a legitimate pink slip. He sold the Mercedes to the dealer for $12,500, a steal.

Garver got a call last December from a guy whose wife works for an insurance company. The caller explained that one of the company’s clients had had his truck stolen and witnesses claimed a tow truck may have taken it; he said a friend of the victim’s had seen the tow truck in an alley near Imperial Avenue in Southeast San Diego. Garver went down to the alley and saw the victim’s truck parked at a transmission shop. He asked around and discovered that McLaurin did some towing for a nearby engine repair shop, so Garver returned later for a stake-out.

When McLaurin showed up, Garver found that he had removed the VIN plate from the dashboard of the converted ’85 Chevy pickup. But another way to identify a car is by checking the “federal label,’’ located on the edge of the driver’s door or pillar post on all vehicles manufactured after 1970. (The federal label shows that the vehicle meets all U.S. manufacturer’s requirements; vehicles manufactured for use in other countries don’t carry such a label.) McLaurin had fabricated a new federal label, with bogus VIN numbers.

“These guys learn a lot from our testimony in court,” Garver explains. McLaurin, who had been on trial for auto theft before, had listened closely to the auto theft investigators when they related in court how they had used the federal label to identify vehicles he’d stolen. But Garver knew something the thief didn’t: the location of the “confidential” identification number stamped onto the frame of the vehicle. This number is located in different places on different cars, and it’s a closely guarded bit of intelligence that the investigators won’t say much about. Garver found it, ran it through SVS — the national computerized Stolen Vehicle System — and discovered that the truck was stolen. McLaurin was arrested, and last March he was convicted on three counts of grand theft, auto.

Garver and his three colleagues are among the few auto theft investigators in the county who work “pro-actively,” which means they go out searching tor auto thieves, rather than simply waiting for the victims to come to them. They often visit auto shows, junkyards, body shops, paint shops, swap meets, and other businesses catering to the automobile trade, in hopes of finding leads on stolen cars. They’re good at spotting various components of the same car spread out miles apart in different dismantling yards, evidence of a chop-shop operation that is stealing cars and breaking them down into the salable components.

“Your expensive cars are worth more in parts than they are whole,” explains Myron Smith, one of Garver’s colleagues. Smith, who is considered a premier expert on illicit trade in Borsches, is also dressed in the uniform of the day: T-shirt and jeans. He says the owners of the businesses frequented by the investigators generally know that they’re cops, but the customers don’t. He and his colleagues are frequently called by “friendly dismantles” who are suspicious of a particular person who has offered to sell them, say, a nearly new Camaro engine and transmission. Smith and another investigator will go to the dismantling yard and act like customers, or sometimes they’ll pretend to be employees, and when the seller of the parts arrives, the offices will quickly cross-reference the ID numbers from the parts to the VIN numbes of stolen vehicles in the SVS computer. They’ve made several arrests that way. The in-vestigatos say that most local dismantling yards are “friendly” and that it’s extremely risky for any of them knowingly to buy hot parts. This is due to the fact that the investigates have the legal right to inspect such businesses, write down ID numbes of components in the inventory, and check to see if the parts have been stolen. Any parts identified as hot can then be confiscated. And if there isn’t good documentation on the parts, the owner can be arrested.

Sometimes Smith and Garver have to go so far as to pose as prospective buyes of a stolen vehicle. One such recent case involved an ’85 Pontiac Firebird that was driven out to San Diego from Colorado. A man had bought the car in Denver with a $2000 down payment, using a phony name. Then he altered the ID numbers on the car and obtained legitimate title papers for it from the Colorado DMV. When he arrived in San Diego, he advertised the car in the Auto Trader for $10,000, which would be an excellent deal. A buyer gave him $5000 down and agreed to give the man the other $5000 in a few days. The buyer then took the car to the CHP to have it inspected. Garver says he ran the VIN numbers, which checked out clean, since the Colorado man had received legitimate papers (using the altered number). Then the investigators ran the “secondary” numbers, which are separate from the VIN numbers and are stamped on various components of the car, such as the engine and transmission. Those also checked out, but the secondary numbers were cross-referenced on the computer to the true VIN numbers, which didn’t match the altered VIN plate.

Garver accompanied the buyer as a “friend” when the man purportedly went to pay off the last $5000, and when the transaction was completed, he identified himself as a police officer. A search of the residence turned up $3200 in cash (what was left of the local buyer’s down payment), a briefcase with five phony IDs, and tools used for removing windshields and altering vehicle ID numbers. The Coloradan was promptly arrested on suspicion of possession of stolen property and altering of a VIN plate.

Car thieves have become so inventive that investigators have had to learn to fight smarts with smarts. Garver tells of a caper involving an ’84 Datsun 4X4 that was abandoned in a canyon northeast of I-805. It had been reported stolen, and San Diego police had discovered it and contacted the owner. But when the man went to look it over, he decided it was too much trouble to recover and repair it. “So the guy just left it there. Didn’t want it anymore,” says Garver. The cops told him he was required to remove it, but before he did, another man discovered it. “Our party comes along, finds the car in the brush, and thinks it’s a gift from God,” Garver chuckles. The guy needed a car badly, Garver explains, but didn’t have the money to buy one. He later told the officers that he thought the car had been stolen and abandoned, or dumped as an insurance fraud, or used in a dope transaction. So he figured it was his for the taking, and nobody would be hurt by it.

“Our guy finds [another] wrecked Datsun 4X4 in a junkyard, changes over all the numbers from it to the one he found in the canyon. But when he took it in to get it registered, the DMV noticed that the VIN plate was loose, so they referred him to us for inspection,” Garver says, smiling that the miscreant brought all of the evidence, as well as the suspect, himself, right into the hands of the cops, like a gift from God. Garver and the other investigators are good at detecting the signs of VIN number tampering, and they didn’t like the looks of the numbers on the car frame. So they used a chemical process on the numbers, which revealed the original numbers underneath — even though they had been ground away. They checked the real numbers and were able to unravel the story of the abandoned 4X4, and the opportunist was arrested for altering ID numbers on a vehicle.

Auto theft investigators say it’s a rare occurrence when one of their cases results in real prison time for the thief. Unlike horse thieves in the Old West, who were often summarily hung, car thieves in the New West are usually given probation, and jail space goes to the more violent criminal. This relatively light punishment is probably one factor behind the spiraling auto theft rates. Last year in the city of San Diego, the number of reported auto thefts exceeded 10,000 for the first time ever, a jump of about fifteen percent over 1984. Previously, auto thefts were increasing by about eleven percent every year. And compared to the national figures, San Diego is a hot market. Throughout the nation, auto thefts increased by only six and one-half percent last year over 1984.

The reasons for the local surge are difficult to pin down. Certainly the increasing traffic in illegal alien smuggling is a major factor. “Chula Vista has the highest rate of thefts of pickups and vans in the U.S.,” says Jon Heggestuen, the single auto theft investigator with the Chula Vista Police Department. He attributes that dubious distinction to traffic in illegal aliens. The city’s auto theft rates jumped about twenty-five percent last year after Chula Vista annexed parts of Otay and the Montgomery area, which comprised 23,000 people near the Mexican border. In May of this year, according Heggestuen, fifty-eight percent of the auto thefts in Chula Vista involved alien smuggling.

The smugglers turned almost exclusively to auto theft in recent years because in 1979 a change in federal law dictated that all vehicles involved in alien smuggling would be confiscated by the government. So smugglers rarely use their own vehicles to transport their cargo. Heggestuen says that vans and small pickup trucks, especially Fords, are favored by the smugglers, because they are the easiest to break into and start. An experienced auto thief, using a long, thin strip of metal called a “slim jim,” can break into most small pickups in a matter of seconds, according to car theft investigators. The piece of metal is slipped down between the window and the door and maneuvered until it trips open the lock. Then the vehicle is either hot-wired by cutting the ignition wires and by-passing the ignition lock, or the lock itself is removed and the ignition switch is turned with a screwdriver. Some professional thieves even carry their own Ford ignitions, which they quickly install themselves before driving off.

Other reasons for the increasing rate of car theft are related to the increasing population. As more people grab for the grail in San Diego County, the customary reasons for car theft — joyriding, dismantling the car and selling the parts, using the car for other crimes — increase naturally. But the scales have tipped in favor of the thief. The San Diego Police Department’s auto theft unit has had the same number of investigators, five, since 1979. And the only cases that are investigated by the San Diego Police Department are those in which a suspect is named or already in custody. Unlike the CHP, the San Diego police do almost no proactive work. And although about eighty percent of the stolen cars are later recovered — most of them are taken for the purpose of stealing something out of them, such as a sound system or an expensive component — arrests are made in only about eleven percent of all the reported cases. Through May of this year, there were 5399 reported car thefts in the city of San Diego (about thirty-five per day), and 626 suspected car thieves were arrested.

“We haven’t been able to react to the increasing numbers,” explains Lt. Charles Grimm, who heads up the auto theft unit, “but it looks like we’ll be getting another investigator pretty soon.” The San Diego Police Department investigators work mostly thefts of opportunity. “Dopers will watch you park your car at a shopping center or the zoo, and after you walk away, they’ll break in and steal it, use it for the day, and then rip something out of it,” explains Sgt. William Jacobsen, the supervisor of the auto theft detectives. Apartment complexes, convenience stores (where people often leave the keys in their unattended car), shopping centers, amusement centers like Sea World, the zoo, and Seaport Village, are all popular car pools for the opportunists. “Two years ago, it was really bad at the amusement centers,” says Jacobsen, “but we talked to the heads of security, and now Sea World has dropped to next to nothing. They patrol the lot. And the San Diego Zoo has also taken security steps. And now the crooks have moved to the major shopping centers.”

The San Diego police, with assistance from the CHP, worked a complicated case involving professional car thieves last year. Between August of 1984 and June of 1985, there was a rash of thefts involving Toyota Celicas and Supras. The thieves, who were never caught, employed an ingenious way of gaining high profit at low risk. They would steal a car, completely remove the interior, including the seats, headliner, door panels, carpets, parts of the dashboard, and the wheels, and then take the car back onto the street and abandon it. In every case, the car’s insurer decided it was a total loss, since it would cost more money to replace the interior than the car was worth. So the gutted vehicle, which was otherwise sound, was towed away. Totaled cars are usually stored in two local “salvage pools” and periodically auctioned off by the insurance companies. The car thieves were following the cars through this process and then buying them at the auctions for about $3500. They were taking the cars to a body shop they ran, where they reinstalled the interiors. The police tracked some of the same cars and discovered that the thieves were selling them on the open market for about $10,000.

Lt. Grimm of the police department says about thirty Toyotas were stolen, gutted, and rebuilt that way before the activity suddenly ceased about a year ago. The police and CHP had narrowed down the chase to a group of Southeast Asian immigrants who ran body shops in San Diego and East County. “They were doing a first-class, professional job,” Grimm explains. “It looked like they’d worked in a Toyota factory. We like to think it stopped because we were at the salvage sales, keeping tabs on Toyotas.” Investigator Myron Smith of the CHP says, “We knew all of the players, but you cannot positively identify interiors. So we could never link up the stolen car with its newly installed interior.” The police auto theft unit has since figured out a way to match interiors to the specific car they were originally installed in, using laboratory analysis. “If they try it again, we’ll be ready,” Sgt. Jacobsen says.

The Toyota theft ring altered the list of most-often-stolen cars in* San Diego, but since that particular caper ceased, Nissan-built cars have become the most popular. The police department’s crime analysis unit has computed a “theft factor” table, which measures the likelihood of a certain make of car being stolen in the city. This table for the month of May shows that Nissans are almost three times as likely to be stolen as, say, Chevys and Fords. Toyotas are the second most popular cars with thieves, followed by Mercurys, Lincolns, and Volkswagens.

There are no statewide figures available on the risk factor of certain vehicles’ being stolen, but thC CHp does keep track of the numbers of each type of car that is taken. This year the 1966 Volkswagen Bug has been the most often swiped, followed closely by the ’65 Bug and the ’67 Bug. So far in 1986, 1014 Bugs made during those years have been stolen statewide. They are followed in popularity among thieves by late-model Toyota Celicas, Datsun B-210s, and classic Ford Mustangs.

But just as the California figures differ sharply from local San Diego figures, so, too, the national figures do not bear much resemblance to the state’s. Nationally, Buick Rivieras are the most popular cars with thieves, followed by Toyota Celica Supras, Cadillac El Dorados, Chevy Corvettes, Pontiac Firebirds, and Mazda RX-7s. Ranked by state, California has the fifth highest auto theft per capita rate, 630 thefts per 10Q,000 population. Michigan has the highest rate, followed by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.

The proximity of Mexico is undoubtedly a factor contributing to California’s high standing among car thieves. In 1985 the CHP’s Mexico liaison unit located 1218 “recoverable” cars in Mexico — those that aren’t involved in Mexican court proceedings or haven’t been confiscated because they contained contraband — most of them stolen in the U.S. and discovered in the Tijuana area. Sgt. Joe Ortiz, who has four investigators working exclusively on Mexico cases, believes that between 6000 and 10,000 stolen vehicles a year cross over the border into Mexico, which means the chances are good that an international car thief will never be busted by Ortiz’s small unit.

Ortiz figures that a substantial number of the cars found in Mexico are insurance fraud cases, in which a car is dumped south of the border and later reported stolen in the U.S. for purposes of collecting the insurance money. The bulk of these cases involve people living in Los Angeles or Orange County, or even Nevada. “People do really, really dumb things,” Ortiz explains. “For example, an individual recently went to Rosarito Beach with a friend, ran off the road and crashed, and the police took them both to the hospital. Then they arrested the driver for injuring the passenger. Two days later, he was released on bail, and he came to San Diego. He contacted a friend in Orange County, a young woman who was hoping to get on with the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. He needed her to be a witness because he wanted to report the car stolen from the Seaport Village parking lot. She agreed, and the driver filed a theft report with the police and his insurance company and listed her as the witness.

“Well, the car he’d driven to Rosarito Beach was being kept in an impound lot down there, and we routinely run checks on all of the impounded cars in Mexico. We ran that car, and we found that it had been reported stolen in San Diego two days after it was in a crash in Mexico. It was so simple. We filed two counts of insurance fraud, plus attempted grand theft of the insurance money, plus filing a false police report. And we filed conspiracy charges against the girl. She would have never done something like this if the car had been abandoned in the U.S. People feel that if the car is in Mexico, nobody will ever know about it. She just ruined her career in law enforcement.”

Ortiz says Mexican police officers are acutely aware that their country is considered a good place to stash stolen or abandoned vehicles, so the CHP regularly receives calls from Mexican cops who want to check out the ID numbers on suspicious-looking cars and trucks. The stolen vehicles in Mexico that aren’t insurance frauds are down there for a variety of reasons: to be dismantled and sold in pieces, to be used on remote Mexican ranches, or for VIN switches and resale. “Since the devaluation, sales of new cars have plummeted in Mexico,” says Ortiz. Oscar Marx, former head of Ford Motor Company’s Mexico operations, recently told Mexican newspaper reporters that new Ford sales have dropped thirty-five percent in Mexico since early 1985. “Repairing of used cars is a necessity, so consequently, used American vehicles are popular for parts," Ortiz explains.

Most of the CHP’s Mexico cases are filed against Mexican citizens. In 1984, the CHP helped prosecute ninety-six suspects in Tijuana. That same year, the unit filed cases against only twenty-seven suspects in the U.S. “We do have an extradition treaty with Mexico, but Mexico just won’t extradite its citizens,” says Ortiz. “But they will prosecute them under article four of the Mexican federal penal code.” By Mexican law, a citizen of Mexico can be prosecuted in that country for a crime committed outside its borders. Ortiz acknowledges that these prosecution figures seem to indicate that there’s a robust business in Mexicans coming north, stealing vehicles, and returning home with them.

Ortiz says Mexican police are so attuned to the car theft problem in the U.S. that they continue to help the CHP even after being transferred from Tijuana to other parts of the country.

“We’re working a recovery out of Santa Rosalia [on the Sea of Cortez in Central Baja] right now,” Ortiz declares. “And we’ve gotten them from as far away as Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala."

Central America has become another popular destination for vehicles stolen in the U.S.. Two men were recently caught outside Mexicali by Mexican Federal Highway Police, on their way to Guatemala in two new stolen Datsun pickups. Ortiz says that it’s relatively easy to purchase counterfeit pink slips for vehicles — one source for the phony titles is in Ensenada — and that more and more thieves from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are flying north, crossing the border illegally, stealing a small pickup here, and driving it back home. “Some of them are constantly on the road, either heading north to get a vehicle or driving south in one,” Ortiz explains. “With the phony title, it’s easy to get legitimate papers in their own country, and then they sell it and come back for another one.” Ortiz’s investigators have given training to Mexican police, teaching them how to spot the bogus pink slips, and a few of the Central Americans have been caught in Mexico. “They physically don’t match the vehicles,” Ortiz says. “They’re poorly dressed, obviously without the economic background to pay cash for the vehicle, which is what the title indicates they did. It makes you want to look deeper.” But the bulk of the CHP unit’s work involves checking out the various impound lots in and around Tijuana and advising individuals and insurance companies when stolen vehicles are located. The CHP issues teletype messages with instructions for recovering the vehicle from Mexico. It is up to the individual or the insurance company to go down and get it. Oftentimes, if the insurance company has already paid off on the vehicle, it is not worth the cost and trouble of recovering it, so it is left on the impound lot. The vehicle then becomes the property of the Mexican Federal Vehicle Registry, which donates some of the vans to the Mexican Red Cross and some of the trucks to government agencies dealing with farms and ranches. Generally, the luxury cars go to the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Office, to be used by diplomats. Some of the impounded vehicles are also auctioned by the government.

The U.S. and Mexico signed a treaty in 1981 establishing procedures for recovering stolen vehicles and aircraft from the respective countries. Under the terms of the treaty, the American consulate in Tijuana must issue a letter requesting release of the vehicle from whatever Mexican police agency has custody of it. According to Mark Susser, an American attache at the American Consulate just west of the Agua Caliente racetrack, between 400 and 500 of these letters are issued every year, once the owner of the car shows proof of ownership. But Susser knows that about 1200 vehicles are annually recovered from Mexico, which means that as many as 800 recoveries are being made without the assistance of the consulate. Susser has no explanation for the discrepancy.

But other people do. “The American consulate is our worst enemy,” explains one of the few private agents who specialize in recovering vehicles from Mexico. He has worked for many years inside Mexico, though he’s an American citizen; he doesn’t want to jeopardize his good relations there, so he asked that his name not be used. “I don’t go through the consulate unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he continues. “They treat you like a dog, the same way they treat the Mexicans who go there for visas. If your 'i' isn’t dotted and your 't' isn’t crossed, they make you come back the next day. But according to the treaty, we only have forty-five days to get the car out or it reverts to Mexico. I’ve lost cars because of the consulate. One time I had a power of attorney document, and the last letter of the word 'attorney' was an 'i' instead of a 'y', so my secretary blanked it out and typed in the 'y.' They turned me back because of that. And even if you do get their letter, you still end up having to pay off the Mexicans to get the car out.”

Technically, the treaty isn’t violated when the consulate is left out of the process. According to this source and others, the process can be simplified if the right people receive their gratuity, and the insurance companies would just as soon pay a few dollars more as hassle with the consulate over paperwork. The corruption that is endemic to the country has become a normal part of the vehicle recovery process. And that corruption, those in the vehicle-recovery business claim, also operates outside of the recovery process.

It’s difficult, apparently, for the Mexicans to leave all those nice cars alone on the impound lots. Americans who work closely with the impound lots say that for years Mexican government officials have routinely appropriated American-owned cars from the lots. “During every election campaign, like the ones [just concluded] in Baja, cars are taken out of the impound lots and used for the campaign,” explains the private agent. “The best ’85 models and the best motor homes are being used, and after the election, some of them are kept by the campaign workers as rewards.”

The agent laughs when he is reminded of the stories published in 1981 by the San Diego Union, revealing that Mexican law enforcement officials were involved in auto theft rings in the United States. “Those stories didn’t put a dent in the problem,” he says. “I could show you fifty officials right now who are driving stolen vehicles.” Then how does an American agent, working for the insurance companies, go about recovering vehicles in such an atmosphere of corruption? “When in Rome, you look the other way.”

Auto theft investigators figure about ten percent of the 33,000 cars stolen in Southern California last year ended up in Mexico. About eighty percent of the rest, they say, were recovered in the U.S., usually close to the point from which they were stolen. To a man, the investigators say it is amazingly easy to break into a car and drive it away, and that all theft alarms can be defeated if a crook wants the car badly enough. When asked what antitheft measures he would use on a car he didn’t want stolen, one investigator answered, ‘‘Plastic explosives.” Another replied, “Good insurance.” Entry methods are often simple. Sgt. William Jacobsen of the San Diego Police Department auto theft unit tells of one thief who stole twenty-three Porsches, many of them protected by alarms, in 1981 and 1982. When he was finally apprehended, he told the officers how he defeated the car alarms. “He’d break the window, get in, and have it started in two seconds,” Jacobsen explains. “If it had an alarm, he’d drive it a couple of blocks, open the hood, and tear out the alarm. He said that nobody ever approached him about the alarm, and if they did, he would have acted like it was his own car and he was having trouble with the alarm.”

CHP investigators say many thieves are specialists in one kind of car and know how to break into it quickly. “We had a bunch of Toyota pickups stolen, and the way they were breaking in was by using the truck’s own antenna like a slim jim,” says CHP investigator Myron Smith. “The owner would come out and his truck would be gone, but the antenna would be lying there on the street.”

CHP Sgt. Joe Ortiz reaches into his desk and extracts a ring of forty-four master keys that fit every Ford ignition available. “This guy had two sets of these, one set for the doors and one for the ignitions,” Ortiz says. “Once he got in, he’d try every key, pulling them from one pocket and dropping them , into another pocket if they didn’t work. He said most of the cars would start in less than a minute, and he was gone.” That car thief told the CHP officers that owner-installed car alarms “were less than useless” because they were easy to disconnect. He said that the more expensive professionally installed car alarms slowed him down a bit, but that if he really wanted a particular car, he could defeat any alarm. He preferred to work cleanly, using keys. He told the investigators that certain model Jeeps have their ignition key codes listed on a plate in the glove compartment, and once he had the code, he was able to make his own key. He would also use the old trick of “palming” a key by answering a classified advertisement for a car, going on a test drive, and covertly making an impression of the key in a piece of wax. Later he would use the impression to mold his own key and return with it to steal the car.

“If I had a car I didn’t want stolen,” says Greg Garver, the undercover investigator for the CHP, “I’d have a motion detector alarm and an in-line kill switch.” Other investigators agree that the kill switch, located in a hard-to-find place somewhere inside the car, is the best prevention. When the switch is flipped, the electrical circuit within the car is broken, making the engine impossible to start. But the auto-theft investigators as a group employ one surefire preventative that their collective experience has taught them: if they want to be certain that a new car will not be stolen, they won’t buy it.

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