When a group of criminals began stealing newer model vehicles straight from car dealerships along the Interstate 5 corridor, one question instantly rose to the top.
How'd they do it?
is going on more than they know, according to Lakewood Police investigator Jeff Hall. Parts of the problem, he said, are dealerships aren't keeping tabs on their vehicle inventory.
It sounds like a trick borrowed straight from the popular mid-90s flick Fargo.
"A lot of these car lots don't do regular counts and don't know what they have in their inventory," Hall said. "There were a couple instances when we contacted the car lots and they didn't know they had cars stolen off these lots."
You'd be surprised by the crime ring's simple yet complex methodology.
The simple part is obtaining the keys without having to break into the vehicle. Hall, who is a member of the Auto Crime Enforcement Task Force in Pierce County, said it was a bait and switch tactic.
An inconspicuous man would ask to test drive a car and while the accomplice distracts the salesman, the other suspect would return a dummy key. Hours later, after the dealership is closed, they'd return and steal the car.
The other method Hall said was they were targeting dealerships with key boxes attached to the passenger window. They figured out how to pry off the key box without breaking window.
That's the easy part.
The complex part of the lucrative scheme was switching the stolen Vehicle Identification Numbers on the car with used VINs from other vehicles. The suspects utilized specialized skills by switching VINs found on the dash and other places with cloned VIN numbers from real vehicles for sale in Canada, Lawler said.
Andy Suver, Lakewood Sgt, said the VIN switch is pretty irregular and not the bulk of what they're dealing with.
"It's a pretty unique set of skill and opportunity," Suver said. "We found one guy had access to stolen VINs and the other had access to embossing. It's a high level of knowledge, skills and tools. It's more work than most guys would try to emulate."
The criminals weren't stealing your average 1989 Honda Accords, either. Police seized a 2011 Lincoln Navigator, a 2008 Ford F-150 and a 2007 Ford F-350. Police say the vehicles are valued at about $200,000.
Hall said there are still more vehicles out there with stolen VIN numbers as their investigation continues.
"As to how many we don't know," he said. "This is about as sophisticated as auto theft operation gets. It's the most complex investigation I've ever seen."
ACE investigators went undercover and opened up a fake chop shop this past summer to thwart people trying to sell stolen vehicles and car parts, reported the Tacoma News Tribune. Lt. Chris Lawler said in the Tribune article that 25 suspects were identified and the task force recovered 3,000 stolen items taken during 24 burglaries in the region.
In this particular bust, the criminals had much higher level of sophistication, Suver said. Two of the thieves, Qualagine A. Hudson and Christopher Porter brought a stolen F-150 to the Tacoma mall on Jan. 14.
That's when police—who posed as prospective buyers on a Craig's List advertisement—made their move in the sting operation. Additional suspects included three other individuals.
Lakewood Police were initially tipped by the Olympic Police Department on Dec. 12 after a reported theft in their jurisdiction of an F-250 stolen from a car lot. That vehicle had been sold in Vancouver, Wash.
Hall said the Hudson, the ringleader, sold the Navigator for $30,000 and asked for $7,000 up front. The new model Lincoln SUV retails around $70,000.
Lakewood Police Sgt. Andy Suver said the lucrative vehicle theft was several steps above what they normally see.
"It's a different animal than what we're used to," Suver said.