It's never been easy being a car in Los Angeles, and nowadays, car thieves are keeping automobiles' life expectancy lower than ever.
While the state of California officially says 80% of all stolen cars are recovered, you have to read between the lines. The state counts the recovery of any part of a vehicle--such as the license plate--as recovery of an entire car.
Los Angeles police estimate that roughly half of all stolen cars in the city are returned completely intact. "Fifteen years ago, when kids went on a joy ride, they drove around until they ran out of gas and parked it," LAPD Detective Bob Graybill said. "Now they drive around until they run out of gas, take the tires, radio, strip it bare and park it."
Los Angeles is home to an underground economy driven by the parts of pilfered cars. In back yards and garages throughout the San Fernando Valley, "chop shops" dissect stolen autos and pass on the remains to buyers desperate for replacement parts.
"Prior to the advent of selling narcotics, this was the big way to make money," Los Angeles Police Detective Ken Belt said of car theft. It continues to be a sometimes lucrative sideline for practiced burglars, he said.
Eight years ago, stolen parts were frequently funneled through body shop dealers, Belt said. They were the first target of the LAPD's Valley CECATS (Community Efforts to Combat Auto Theft) team, which raided body shops and found stolen cars being stripped about 20% of the time.
"We've pretty well put a crush on this," Belt said. "It's gone now to the back yard, to the personalized garage, to the abandoned house."
Chop shop operators and dealers of stolen parts will sometimes ask thieves they know to bring them specific cars, Belt said. For example, if a customer needs a new fender for a red Honda Civic, the dealer may ask a thief to find him a comparable car, then peel off the fender and sell the part cheap.
Chop shop operators will also buy damaged cars from public auctions, equip them with stolen parts, then resell the vehicles, Belt said. Another scam is to strip a car, save the parts, and then buy the stripped car back from the insurer, refurnish it, and sell it.
Police are often alerted to chop shops by tips from residents who may have noticed that strange cars keep entering their neighbor's garage and never leave, or who spot a growing pile of rusting parts in a neighbor's back yard, Graybill said.
But then it's too late for the car owners, who can only take satisfaction in knowing that the people who dissected their vehicles will be brought to justice. For police to recover a car before it's chopped requires quick action, Graybill said.
"You get that car within the first hour and a half, and there's a pretty good chance of it coming back," he said. "Anything more than two hours and you're probably going to get it back in pieces."
It's the patrol officers who most frequently nab car thieves as they joy-ride about town in their newly swiped wheels, Graybill said, estimating that 90% of all recoveries of stolen cars are due to patrol officers stopping suspicious-looking drivers.
Patrol officers are guided by their instincts in stopping cars, Graybill said. But it can be a risky tactic.
"You stop these guys and it comes back as a stolen car, you're a hero," Graybill said. "It comes back and they're borrowing it, you're in for a lawsuit."