A multi-agency task force Wednesday afternoon arrested two men suspected of running a chop shop in a residential garage for six months, stealing and stripping about 100 Valley-area foreign cars, authorities said.
The men were believed to have stolen new Hondas and Acuras and taken them back to a house in the 13700 block of Branford Street, where they methodically stripped them and abandoned the automobile skeletons several blocks away.
In a drive through the Arleta neighborhood Wednesday morning, two members of the Community Effort to Combat Auto Theft team--made up of investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol, Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Insurance Crime Bureau--found a blue Honda Civic parked on Branford Street about 9:30. A computer check of the car's license plate determined the car had been stolen.
The two investigators staked out the car and watched as a man got in, drove it through a back alley, pulled into a residential garage and closed the door. Less than 10 minutes later, task force members surrounded the garage and arrested the two men inside, said LAPD Det. Robert Graybill, who heads the task force.
The men had already removed the car's ignition, he said.
"We could hear the work being done," said task force member George Stan of the LAPD.
Arrested were Antonio Munoz Rodriguez, 29, of Van Nuys and Leobardo Vasquez, 39, of Arleta, who rented the house.
Both face charges of operating a chop shop, and Rodriguez also faces a charge of grand theft of an automobile, Graybill said. Both were taken to Van Nuys Jail.
Despite a longer than two-month investigation, it was Wednesday's lucky break that netted the two arrests, Stan said.
"We happened to be looking today, and it happened to be at the right place at the right time," he said.
Shelves in the garage held professional auto repair manuals dating back several years and dozens of wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools believed used to take apart cars, Graybill said.
A cardboard box was half-filled with car ignitions and several dealer nameplates, possibly from stolen cars that had not yet received license plates, he said.
The men are believed to have stripped the cars--valued at between $20,000 and $40,000--and then either sold the parts or used them to rebuild wrecked cars bought at a local salvage yard.
The cars were stolen from Van Nuys, Northridge and Granada Hills. "The San Fernando Valley is the shopping mall for auto thefts," Graybill said.
For six months, the men eluded task force members, who would drive through the neighborhood and find a stripped car on the street or in an alley several times a week. The cars were often pushed out into the street at about 3 a.m. or after nearby residents left for work in the morning, said LAPD Sgt. Kenneth Belt.
Pieces of the stolen cars were sold to body shops, Graybill said, and stereos, cellular phones and other items were peddled at swap meets and garage sales.