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L.A. Air Bag Thieves May Be Popping Up in East County

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles police are warning that air bag thieves from the San Fernando Valley may soon be plying their trade in eastern Ventura County.

Easier to steal than car stereos and worth more on the black market than cellular phones, air bags are what some thieves really want from parked cars, officials say.

First reported five years ago, the crime is already common in Chatsworth and Granada Hills, where more than 90 have been recorded in the past six months, police say.

Authorities in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks fear their cities may be next. Simi Valley has seen five air bag thefts in just four weeks--all in residential areas off the Ronald Reagan Freeway.

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“It appears to be the same people branching out from San Fernando to Simi Valley,” said Simi Police Sgt. Bob Gardner. “It’s real convenient for them to do it, then just jump back on the freeway and leave. We have very few home-grown car burglars.”

Sgt. Steve Burke of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols Thousand Oaks, agreed.

“We saw the stats and said ‘Uh oh,’ ” Burke said. “Hopefully, Thousand Oaks won’t become fresh territory and get the overflow.”

Calling air bag thefts a “significant problem” in the West Valley in recent months, Los Angeles Police Det. Jesse Castillo said foreign cars built since 1994--when dual driver and passenger air bag systems became common--are the most frequent targets. Thieves can score two air bags in a single strike, he said.

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“It’s the latest fad for car thieves,” Castillo said. “In just five minutes it’s bang, bang, four screws and they’re gone.”

Easier stolen and more lucrative to sell than a radio, air bags can fetch $300 to $500 each on the black market, Castillo said.

The buyers are mostly less-than-reputable body shops or dealerships that will buy a stolen air bag for $500, install it as new and charge customers the full market price of up to $1,000. The thieves and body shops will each make hundreds of dollars on every stolen air bag.

Gary Knudtson, manager of Supercraft Body Shop in Oxnard, said he is aware of the black-market demand for air bags, but that it is usually small, one-man body shops that participate.

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“We’ve never been approached [to buy a stolen air bag],” Knudtson said. “The large, reputable body shops couldn’t stand the liability if one of the [stolen] air bags failed.”

There is little a car owner can do to prevent the thefts, Castillo said.

“Get the cars off the street and into garages and make them harder targets to hit,” he said.

Castillo said security devices--such as the “Shield,” which covers the steering wheel with a metal plate--also can deter theft, but not prevent it.

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“These are smart kids,” Castillo said. “If they want your air bag, they’ll get it.”

Prying an air bag out of a steering wheel or from behind a glove compartment can be dangerous since it is an explosive device. But it’s not enough to scare off the experienced thieves who disarm the air bag by disconnecting the car’s electrical system, Castillo said.

“Fool around with an air bag, and it could explode in your face,” he said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it happen to any of our thieves yet. I wish I had.”


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