Filemon Alvarez had been driving a rough-idling, 1972 Chevy pickup with a leaky transmission and 150,000 miles on it. So in January, when he found a deal for a 1985 Toyota truck, gleaming red with carpeting and a camper shell, at $3,000 below the market price, he jumped at it.
He paid $6,100 in cash and registered his new purchase with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Three weeks later, law-enforcement investigators gave him the bad news--the deal was too good to be true.
"They said, 'You bought a stolen truck,' " Alvarez, a part-time gardener, recalled. "I was kind of shocked when they told me. They came with a tow truck and picked it up. There was nothing I could do."
Nearly a year later, Alvarez is still driving his old blue truck--when it's not in the shop--and hoping he can recover his money. And investigators are still tracking a car-theft ring that has mined what detectives describe as a small fortune in the junkyards of Wilmington.
The roughly 200 junkyards in or near Wilmington are believed to be a thriving market for stolen-car sales, stolen-part sales and sophisticated theft rings that use junked cars to gain legal title to new stolen cars, said state investigators and Los Angeles police.
"You get 200 junkyards in a small little area like the harbor . . . and it makes it very difficult for law enforcement," said Lt. Mike Markulis, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division. "Cars are stolen, taken to them, broken down and cut up. We see switching of vehicle identification numbers. You can't believe what's happening out there."
The theft scheme that victimized Alvarez is considered typical for Wilmington, according to California Highway Patrol investigator C. W. Garrison, who has been handling the case. "So far, we've recovered about 15 vehicles," he said. "But there could be four times that many. If you figure $8,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, we're talking maybe half a million dollars" in stolen cars.
Although many junkyard owners, or auto dismantlers, deny that crime is a serious issue at the yards, police say the problem has reached alarming proportions. Law-enforcement efforts have been hampered by a shortage of police manpower to watch over the yards and an ever-increasing consumer demand for cars and car parts statewide, police said.
Car thefts in California have climbed steadily for at least five years, reaching a record 178,597 cases in 1985, CHP officials said. It is a record almost certain to be broken this year, they said.
In Los Angeles County, which accounts for nearly half of the theft total, authorities believe a large but unknown number of the cases involve Wilmington and portions of the San Fernando Valley where junkyard concentrations are heaviest. Of the 84,851 cars reported stolen in the county last year, 74,818 were later recovered, CHP Sgt. Don Henderson said. The remaining 10,033 are the ones investigators wonder about.
"They could be stripped, chopped (into sections for parts) . . . or out of the country," Henderson said. "We don't know where they went."
CHP Sgt. Ed Whitby said police experts believe about half of the car thefts are committed by "someone who steals to commit a crime and then dumps the vehicle, or youths out looking for a joy ride. The other 50% includes the professional thief, the person who uses the car to strip it, or to alter its identity and sell it. Those are the two largest categories of professional thief."
Based on the evidence, Wilmington's role in the problem appears to be deep-rooted, police said, involving many hundreds or thousands of car thefts that occur each year throughout the region. Investigators say thieves often take advantage of honest junkyard owners to buy wrecked cars for use in illegal number-switching schemes. In other cases, dishonest junkyard owners have been arrested as part of such schemes or for purchasing stolen cars and parts, police said.
But the real scope of the problem is difficult to gauge because neither the police nor any other regulatory agency has the manpower to regularly inspect the yards or to investigate every possible case, authorities said.
Los Angeles police, for example, recorded well over 200 arrests during an 18-month period when the department had a two-man investigative team in harbor-area junkyards, Harbor Division detective John Woodrum said. About 60 of those arrests involved felonies such as auto theft or receiving stolen goods, he said. An additional 200 involved misdemeanor violations of state and city operating regulations.
"Virtually all of them . . . involved either the (junkyard) owners or their employees," Woodrum said. "Nine times out of 10 . . . those that didn't abide by the small rules were involved in more serious kinds of crimes. . . . It's a real rat's nest down there."