Reviving an Old Crime, Wheel Thieves Put Cars Back Up on the Blocks


tire-on-blockNew York – It was before dawn on Monday when a New Rochelle patrol officer spotted a car carrying two men suspected in a series of thefts in the area. He flicked on his lights. The suspects sped off, beginning a chase that ended in the Bronx, when their car slammed into a bank of parked cars, killing one of the men and injuring the other.

Inside the crumpled vehicle the police made an unusual discovery: the passenger who died at the scene, Francisco Santana-Pena, had a car wheel on his lap.

The men, the police said, had just stolen a half-dozen tires from near a Honda dealership, which a week earlier was the target of a more audacious heist of 72 wheels that left rows of gleaming new cars perched on cinder blocks.

The sight of partially dismembered cars left up on blocks was fairly common decades ago, when it came to symbolize cities lost to crime. But tire thefts are now resurgent around the country, thanks to anonymous online marketplaces that provide easy access to customers, and advances in power tool technology that allow thieves to remove them with the speed of a Nascar pit crew.

What is generally stolen is the entire wheel, which is then sold in the form of its individual components: tire and rim.

“All you have to do is jack up the car, remove the lug nuts and remove the wheels,” said Captain Joseph F. Schaller of the New Rochelle Police Department. “If you know what you’re doing it can be done pretty quickly – in a matter of a minute or two.”

Though law enforcement authorities say they do not have the statistics that show these types of thefts are on the rise – in part because many are not reported to the police or to insurers – many community leaders across the country say they are seeing a worrisome uptick. The resurgence, they say, has prompted car owners to take special protective measures, like organizing neighborhood patrols, outfitting houses with street-facing surveillance cameras and urging car owners to use locking lug nuts to deter thefts.

“It’s a crime we haven’t seen much of since the ’80s,” said Peter F. Vallone Jr., a city councilman who represents Astoria, Queens, where a spate of thefts has prompted residents to train volunteer “block watchers” to patrol the neighborhoods. The first 24 are scheduled to start this weekend. “And it unfortunately, I believe, is a harbinger of a return of crimes we thought were in our past.”

Tires are taken from cars parked on sleepy streets, in unattended parking lots, or even in private driveways. But large-scale thefts like the one in New Rochelle, where thieves cut their way into the lot through a chain-link fence, have been occurring around the country, in places like Jacksonville, Fla., Oklahoma City, and Harrisburg, Pa., where over a hundred tires were stolen on a single night last year.

In Michigan, tire thefts have risen significantly over the past five years, said Terri Miller, the executive director of Help Eliminate Auto Thefts, which provides law enforcement agencies with crime reports gathered through its statewide tip line. “If they can’t get it by stealing your entire vehicle, they are going to steal pieces of it.”

Tires are a prime choice, she said, because “they’re the easiest, you don’t have to break anything, you don’t have to damage anything to get to them.”

In Woodside, Queens, Jonathan Reuning, who periodically looks after a friend’s Honda Fit, awoke to find it stripped of its tires one morning in February. As he stood beside the car in shock, Mr. Reuning said, two separate passers-by approached and showed him cellphone photos of their own cars in the same condition. “I didn’t feel so alone, but at the same time it was angering,” Mr. Reuning said.

Thieves prefer newer – and more expensive – alloy wheels, some of which can cost upward of $500. And because tires are rarely equipped with tracing devices, they are rarely found, making it a less risky, though also less lucrative, alternative to stealing an entire car.

The theft of car parts is not limited to tires, according to officials. Other targets include air bags, navigation systems and catalytic converters. But tires are the easiest for thieves, armed with cordless power tools and typically working as a crew, to take quickly. In addition to the tires thieves usually make off with the rims, which can also cost hundreds of dollars.

Along industrial strips like Linden Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, it is not uncommon for people on the street to hawk tires. While it is usually unclear if the tires are stolen or merely castoffs, staff members at a business called Flats Fixed said they had a policy of refusing all offers, which come as often as twice a week, no matter how good the deal.

More often, though, stolen tires are peddled online, according to law enforcement officials. A recent search of a popular online auction site revealed over 6,000 tires for sale in the New York area. In a twist, such sites can be the very place many people turn for replacements after they have been robbed.

Because people do not insure their cars against theft of parts, the numbers of this type of claim don’t accurately reflect its prevalence, said Frank Scafidi a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that tracks car thefts and related crimes. He said an increase might be a consequence of newer vehicles being harder to steal, though without the numerical data he was skeptical that this type of theft was on the rise.

Kenneth Lack, a deputy inspector with the Nassau County Police Department, said the numbers on Long Island had spiked sharply. The 135 cases reported since this time last year have prompted the department to begin tracking tire thefts as a separate crime. “It wasn’t really an issue for us in the past,” he said.

Even before his dealership was targeted by wheel thieves, J. R. Buchbinder, the general manager of Honda of New Rochelle, was familiar with the phenomenon. He said cars commonly arrived to be repaired at the service shop on flatbed trucks, missing all four wheels.

“Whomever is buying them should be ashamed of themselves,” said Mr. Buchbinder, seated in his office near the lot where the tire thieves cut into the dealership’s chain-link fence. “Because they’re promoting it.”

(The New Rochelle Police Department said it planned to charge Starling Santana, 20, the driver in the car chase, with tire theft. Mr. Santana, who is recovering from the crash at Jacobi Medical Center, has already been charged with vehicular manslaughter by the New York Police Department in the death of the other suspect, Mr. Santana-Pena, 24.)

As a result of the thefts law enforcement officials, neighborhood leaders and even car dealerships are urging car owners to take protective steps. These include installing locking lug nuts that require a special key to remove, though those, too, can be broken by determined thieves. Other measures include using a large tire lock, similar to the boots placed on cars by the police for unpaid parking tickets, or simply parking the car with its wheels turned at an angle, to make removing them more difficult.

Ms. Miller, from Help Eliminate Auto Thefts, said such steps might only serve to slow thieves down. She suggested parking in a garage. “Other than that,” she said, “There is not a lot of prevention.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}