In August, police cracked down on a Van Nuys auto theft ring that used auto junkyards to satisfy its thirst for certain American sports cars.
The thieves stripped identification numbers from wrecked Firebirds, Camaros and Fieros that investigators believe were bought at the yards, then used the numbers to register 29 stolen cars of the same models.
For the Record Photo Not Intended to Implicate Salvage Yard
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 31, 1986 Valley Edition Metro Part 2 Page 6 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
A Dec. 22 article about law-enforcement efforts to control stolen auto-parts trafficking at Valley junkyards was accompanied by a photograph of cars stored at an auto salvage and dismantling yard. The photo was intended as a generic picture of an auto salvage yard. It was not used to suggest any connection whatsoever between that particular yard and illegal auto-parts trafficking.
Weeks later, in another incident, police testified that a North Hollywood auto-wrecking firm knowingly helped a theft ring with a different taste in automobiles--Toyota Supras--by receiving a dozen of the stolen cars from the ring.
Thus continued the ongoing battle between a small clan of auto-theft detectives and operators of what the public calls junkyards. Police say many of the San Fernando Valley's more than 200 salvage and dismantling yards warehouse and sell stolen cars, stolen parts or wrecked autos used to gain title to stolen vehicles.
"There's all kinds of stuff going on," said Phil Chlopek, senior investigator for the state Department of Motor Vehicles' Arleta office. "If you dig hard enough, you're going to find a lot of dirt wherever there are junkyards. And the Valley has a lot of junkyards."
10,000 Never Recovered
Salvage yards that buy and sell auto parts act as magnets, attracting thieves looking to sell what they have stolen, police officers say. Of the approximately 85,000 cars reported stolen in Los Angeles County last year, 10,000 were never recovered. Don Higgins, an auto-theft detective for the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill Division, said he believes millions of dollars in parts from those vehicles can be found amid the debris in the Valley's junkyards.
Stolen auto-parts trafficking is thought to be particularly acute in Sun Valley and Pacoima, where dismantling operations dot the major streets. The practice also is believed to flourish in other parts of Los Angeles, including Wilmington, the home of hundreds of additional dismantling operations.
Although some efforts are made to stem the problem by toughening up regulations concerning the resale of junked cars, controlling the trafficking of stolen autos is difficult largely because of a rising number of thefts statewide, police said.
Theft Is Low Priority
Police say several factors explain this trend, including the soaring value of stolen-car parts, increasing numbers of foreign cars made with easily disassembled modular parts and the knowledge among thieves that auto theft is a "low-risk" crime. Also, auto theft generally is low on the priority list for law enforcement agencies, who focus resources on major crimes.
Cases involving salvage yards in which authorities have discovered stolen vehicles and stripped parts clutter Valley courts. The owners of four yards near Sun Valley are now being tried for grand theft auto and other offenses.
Two years ago, a Sun Valley junk dealer was convicted of receiving at least 70 stolen cars, ranging from Mercedes-Benz to Chevrolet, police say.
The unscrupulous junk dealer is not a new phenomenon. Various agencies--including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local police and the state Department of Motor Vehicles--for at least 30 years have been inspecting salvage yards suspected of selling purloined auto parts. But police say the problem has grown dramatically worse in recent years.
Authorities say three types of improprieties are most commonly committed by salvage dealers. First, undervalued, stolen auto parts are knowingly purchased from thieves and then sold at prices marked up to normal levels. Second, dealers frequently buy entire stolen cars, dismantle them, crush and dispose of the frames (containing traceable vehicle identifications) and then sell the parts.
Third, thieves who have stolen a vehicle sometimes use junkyards to purchase wrecked versions of the same model, which they want only for the vehicle identification number (VIN), some junk dealers say. After buying the scrap, they remove the federally required VIN, usually located on a door or dashboard, and place it on the new stolen cars.
ID Numbers Switched
The "VIN switch" enables a thief to register a stolen car as salvage, since DMV computers show the identification number belongs to a wrecked car, police say. The thief files paper work with the DMV, claiming that he has bought the wreck and restored it to working condition. The thief pays registration fees, subjects the car to a road test, gains legal title to the vehicle and sells it to an unsuspecting buyer.
Mike Golembesky, manager of AAA Foreign Auto in Sun Valley, said dismantlers often are not culpable when this last scenario unfolds.
"I'm not supposed to know the background of all my customers and what they intend to do with what I sell them," Golembesky said.
"Still," he added, "if someone comes here and wants to buy a car I know can't be restored, then something definitely isn't on the up and up."