- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

Officer Herbert Newman of the Metropolitan Police Department has to laugh when he drives by certain garages in Southeast D.C. that claim to sell repaired auto parts. He knows the cheap, hand-drawn signs out front are the scribblings of car thieves and owners of so-called "chop shops."
Behind such facades is where many of the 6,425 cars stolen in the District last year are shorn of valuable parts, and perhaps some of the 9,800 vehicles stolen in Prince George's County, Md., last year, or even a few of the 2,800 heisted in Montgomery County, Md. Not to mention the 15,000 or so stolen in Northern Virginia.
More than a million cars and trucks worth $7 billion to $8 billion are stolen in the United States each year.
Officer Newman has had his eye on one place he's sure is a front for a stolen-car operation. It's a combination gas station and car wash at least that's what a tiny, hard-to-read sign says.
Officer Newman's 6th District has led the city's seven police districts in stolen autos the past two years, so he takes nothing for granted.
He parks his unmarked car and takes a close look around. He notices the cracked, bone-dry pavement leads to gas pumps that don't work. Some pumps don't even have hoses attached.
Another thing: It is afternoon, business hours, so he wonders why there is not a soul in overalls around, only a snarling dog behind the garage. The dog guards about three dozen cars behind a fence, most of them stripped bare of engine parts.
"I see them working on cars at 9, 10 o'clock at night. Who works on cars that late? … What kind of business doesn't advertise so people can see what they sell?" Officer Newman asks.
The answer, to his trained mind, is simple:
It's probably a chop shop.
That's what cops, crooks and those who saw the Nicolas Cage movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" call the hidden places where the stolen family car is taken to be stripped of thousands of dollars worth of parts.
The word "chop" is misleading, though. If anything, the cars are taken apart with kid gloves because thieves know an air bag alone will fetch more than $200.
While the movies popularize chop shops as places where car thieves custom-steal specific models to fill a customer's order, the truth is, the real money is in stolen parts.
The individual parts of a car are worth 35 percent to 40 percent more than the car itself, police and insurance company investigators say.
Air bags are the most sought-after of stolen parts, police say. The replacement cost of a passenger-side air bag on a 1999 Honda EX is about $800 a 400 percent profit for crooked garage owners.

Clock is running

It takes thieves about six hours to strip a car down to its frame, Officer Newman says. If thieves strip a $30,000 Lexus in six hours, they can make $42,000 off the parts. That's $7,000 an hour.
He and other knowledgeable investigators estimate 80 to 90 chop shops operate on a given day in the city probably 10 in the 6th District but there is little that can be done to stop them for long.
Strapped for personnel, D.C. auto-theft investigators like Officer Newman usually are given 90 days to make a case against a chop shop. If prosecutors don't think the evidence is good enough to win an easy court victory, the investigation stops in its tracks.
Detectives and specially trained officers then are reassigned to investigate another suspicious-looking business with a fresh 90-day clock ticking.
"That makes things tough, especially if you know someone is guilty," says D.C. Detective Daniel Straub of the Special Investigations Division, auto theft desk.
To make matters worse, professional car thieves, including newly emerging mobsters from Russia, are starting to come to town. The District is not ready for this new batch of headaches, police say.
Detective Straub says parts harvested from stolen cars in the District end up in South America, Nigeria and the Middle East.
In one case, a couple reported their car stolen, filed an insurance claim, then tried to export the car to the Persian Gulf by ship. The Port of Baltimore seized the car and foiled the plot, but when schemes like these work, they bump up insurance rates.

The Russian connection

Law enforcement authorities who specialize in auto theft say organized Russian criminals are stealing cars in cities such as Chicago near the Great Lakes and in other wealthy cities on both coasts near large seaports. Cars stolen in greater Washington often end up on the decks of large ships in Baltimore Harbor, hidden inside cargo containers the size of tractor-trailer trucks.
"The Russians particularly like the Lincoln Town Car," Officer Newman says.
The District's first brush with overseas gangsters came in the summer of 1998, when Kevin J. Rellah, 38, of Clinton a career luxury-car thief was about to test the Russian and Chinese markets for stolen cars.
Rellah was preparing to ship 50 stolen sport utility vehicles to organized criminals in Serbia when Secret Service agents arrested him on a D.C. street corner for cell-phone fraud, federal authorities say.
The agents discovered he was driving a stolen 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee and had the key to a stolen Porsche in his pocket, according to federal court records in Maryland, where he was convicted last year.
"He had keys, fake ID, fake notary … big garage, office on Rodeo Drive, East Coast, West Coast," says Sgt. Brian Cedar, a detective with the auto-theft unit of the Maryland State Police. "He had a Web site set up, business cards. He was in the process of really getting going with this."
Part of the shipment of luxurious 1998 and 1999 models included a Lincoln Navigator, a loaded 1999 Ford F-350 pickup worth $45,000, a Ducati motorcycle and a 1997 Porsche 911 valued at $145,000, documents show.

Making headway

The emphasis on quick investigations has given D.C. police a particularly embarrassing black eye.
It will take a while for the Metropolitan Police Department to live down the FBI's bust in the 7th District last September of Ham's Towing, an Arlington, Va.-based company that had a contract with the department to impound stolen cars.
Ham's Towing caught the attention of the FBI when an informant told police its drivers were towing away cars from the District, then titling them in Virginia under the company's name.
Detective Straub of the auto theft desk says investigators discovered that the company's private lot was filled with stolen cars. More stolen cars were found parked on the owner's property in Virginia.
Federal indictments in that case are expected soon, authorities say.
The city's special unit, Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement, or WAVE, has made headway, Detective Straub says.
He points to a chop shop raided by police that fed on the wealthiest part of the city. The outfit, called Clinton Auto Sales, was owned by Basem Najjar, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison March 30 for trafficking in stolen cars and car parts.
Court records depict Najjar as a latter-day Fagin who commissioned his own crooks to steal luxury cars from neighborhoods such as Georgetown, the Gold Coast of upper 16th Street and Foxhall Road NW. The thieves were paid $3,000 if they brought Najjar a quality automobile.
Najjar would strip the cars of the choicest parts, leaving the body and transmission intact for police to find. He then would buy the car's "shell" back at an insurance auction for a few thousand dollars.
Najjar was convicted on 16 of 23 charges, including racketeering, possession of stolen property and operating a chop shop.

A mobile crime

Detective Straub drives by the old Ham's Towing lot. Once again stripped cars sit in the lot. The detective's eyebrows lift. "I wonder what's going on there now?"
Later, he drives by a building in Southeast that has aroused his suspicions lately. Racks outside the garage are filled two-stories high with bumpers, fenders and doors. In back is a large warehouse that Detective Straub says buzzes with activity at night.
"A couple of weeks ago, we saw a car parked along this street," he says. The next day it was missing its tires. A couple of days later the doors were gone. Eventually, it was stripped clean.
The business advertised itself as a towing service and included a big, easy-to-read phone number on its sign.
The number was not in service when The Washington Times called.
"I'm not surprised," Detective Straub says. "Could this business be legitimate? Yes. Do I doubt it? Yes."
He says the number of chop shops in the District doesn't fluctuate much only the locations. That's because the owners just pack up and move when they think they are under suspicion.
Where do they move next? The police won't know that for a while.
"They've got the system tied up in knots. We don't have the money and personnel to conduct surveillance all the time," Detective Straub says.
"Investigations are time-consuming. We get sidetracked during long investigations. We have to watch guys coming and going. We have to videotape and confirm what cars are stolen. We have to document everything to build a good court case. We sit and sit and sit and sit some more."

The biggest fish

Not more than half a mile from the D.C. border, in Prince George's County, is a junkyard that authorities have been watching.
Dozens of tow trucks pull in cars to be stripped or scrapped. These trucks, too, carry phone numbers on the side; a caller, however, gets a recorded voice that says the number is out of service.
Detective Straub estimates this business, and businesses like it, strip down 75 to 100 cars per day, reaping enormous profits.
Yet even with this potential mountain of metallic evidence sitting before him, Detective Straub knows it will be difficult for the District or Prince George's County to put the scrap-yard owner in prison. Within an hour, someone will spot the undercover car, the word will get out and the trucks will stop coming through.
Even if police do nab the owner, given the amount of evidence that investigators can collect, the owner probably won't be in jail for long, Detective Straub says. "The system in place makes it easy for thieves to continue operating."
Baltimore's Regional Auto Theft Team, RATT, does not pursue long-term investigations, either. Not enough manpower, Baltimore County Police Sgt. Bob Jagoe says. At the same time, they don't wait to accumulate mountains of evidence, either.
"I don't need 30 or 40 or 100 stolen cars [to make an arrest], I just need a couple," Sgt. Jagoe says. "We're looking for the biggest fish we can catch."
Sgt. Jagoe heads to the basement of the county building, where he shows evidence seized with a search warrant from a chop shop in North Baltimore the night before.
The shop housed six new cars stolen from local dealerships. Four were Jeep Cherokees.

Prosecution not easy

Most professional groups steal only a particular style or model, says Sgt. Richard Koel, a member of the RATT squad.
If they know the best way to pop the ignition on a Honda, for example, they can steal the car faster.
"They have it down to a science," Sgt. Koel says.
Police in the District, Virginia and Maryland have created auto-theft task forces like WAVE and RATT to combat professional thieves.
The courts, however, tend to view car theft as kids going on a joy ride. Felonies are plea-bargained into misdemeanors, or cases are dropped entirely, say police officers assigned to the stolen-car beat.
"It's not intentionally given low priority, but we have scarce resources spread over an abundance of cases," says Dan Zachem of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District.
Baltimore police officers point to 1994, when 55 percent of auto thefts in Baltimore and Baltimore County were the work of juveniles. By 1999, the number of juveniles arrested had fallen to 7 percent.
The pros had taken over.

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