Pricey Wheels Can Be a Dangerous Obsession

Times Staff Writers

They are the latest status symbol that has cost owners their lives. Forget the jewelry or overpriced high-tops. Fancy after-market car rims are the newest example of flashy conspicuous consumption.

And the desire for a nice set of wheels, which has spread from hip-hop artists and sports stars to suburban SUV drivers, has spawned a whole new wave of thievery.

Ryan James Groetken’s family lives with that grim reality every day. Three men now sit in Los Angeles County Jail facing capital murder charges for allegedly shooting to death the 25-year-old Long Beach man on a Hollywood street May 19 for his Lexus and its set of sparkling, spinning wheels.

“These are coldblooded killers who wanted his car and they wanted his rims,” said Los Angeles Police Det. Vicki Bynum.


When she and other detectives recovered the 1999 Lexus hidden in a Ridgecrest, Calif., garage recently, the rims were missing. A nice set of these wheels, known as spinners because they continue to spin after the car stops, can cost about $11,500.

Groetken’s murder is by no means unique.

An off-duty sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed in Florida in April when he interrupted thieves stealing the flashy rims off a $70,000 Cadillac SUV at a dealership.

That same month, a 23-year-old man was gunned down for his $3,400 rims in St. Louis County, Mo. His Chevy was taken with his 4-year-old daughter still inside. After a 45-minute pursuit, police wounded and captured the suspect.


Sometimes it’s the rim thieves who lose their lives. This spring, a college student was shot to death in Sacramento by a guard when he tried to steal the gold-plated Dayton rims off a Cadillac Escalade.

Five Cadillac SUVs that had been stolen from a Laguna Niguel dealer in March were recovered minus their “dub deuces” -- 22-inch custom wheels.

Three young men in Augusta, Ga., stole a woman’s 2001 Honda Civic and kidnapped and raped her last August because, they told investigators, they liked her rims.

Sales of rims -- known on the street as dubs, dub deuces and spinners -- has surpassed $3.1 billion annually. A black market supplied by thefts, rim jackers and chop shops has followed.


Expensive rims are among the reasons that auto theft nationwide is on the rise, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. In Los Angeles alone there have been 17,355 thefts or attempted thefts of vehicles so far in 2003, and 2,075 related arrests.

“We’d never had a lot of [Ford] F-150 trucks stolen until about a year ago,” said Det. Robert Graybill of the LAPD’s San Fernando Valley-based Community Effort to Combat Auto Theft.

“We couldn’t figure why they were being stolen,” Graybill said. “Then it dawned on us: It was all these rims and accessories.”

When a car-related crime is reported, detectives now want to know not only what type of automobile is involved, but also what kind of wheels it had.


Entertainer Snoop Dogg’s rap about the brand Dayton in the early 1990s made them so popular that a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau referred to them as death rims because they seem to be connected to so many carjackings.

Some street racers and gang members use hot rims to fund their lifestyle, Graybill said. “They see wheels as easy money,” he said. Wheel locks are no obstacle.

“They’ll get a $5,000 set of wheels and sell them for $1,000 cash to some kid from over the hill,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll dirty them up and trade them in at a dealer for some more common rims.”

No longer the preserve of the lowriders of the 1950s and 1960s, today the rim world has spawned publications such as DUB magazine, where celebrities such as Snoop Dogg and Latrell Sprewell can be seen on the cover.


The National Basketball Assn. player owns San Gabriel-based Sprewell Racing.

Images like those are driving a new generation of high-dollar rim owners. Graybill said the LAPD is considering a program that would etch identifying data on individual rims.

Even Hollywood has publicized rims. A lead character in this summer’s “2 Fast 2 Furious” is a street racer who spent a couple of years behind bars for rim theft.

But what happened on the real streets of Hollywood shortly before 3 a.m. May 19 reflects a much uglier reality.


After Groetken parked his Lexus GS 300 on Cherokee Avenue, a group of men with at least one gun approached and demanded the keys. He complied. Nonetheless, Det. Michael Thrasher said, one of the men shot Groetken in cold blood with a 9-millimeter handgun. Then the killers fled in the silver 1999 Lexus.

After a nationwide manhunt and a $25,000 reward offer, Dane Edward Woodson, 19, and Garrett Watson, 24, were arrested in New York. A third defendant, Cornell Nunally, 20, turned himself in.