Shortly before midnight one evening in March, MeraLee Goldman, a Beverly Hills planning commissioner, received the phone call that she had been dreading for nearly a month.
"We found your car," a Los Angeles police officer said, "but maybe you don't want to come down and see it because it was chopped up."
Goldman was prepared for the worst. When her red Mercedes-Benz 380SL sports car was stolen, she was told that the chances were slim that it would be recovered in one piece.
Cannibalized for parts, her car was towed to a police impound yard, where it was left in a partially devoured state. Wires hung from the dashboard where the stereo had been ripped out, the engine had been disassembled and the hood, wheels and trunk lid were missing.
"The parts were probably sold under the counter to unscrupulous merchants who then turn around and sell them to customers, often to the same ones whose cars were stripped," said Detective Ronald Reiser of the Los Angeles Police Department's Wilshire Division.
Goldman's experience is far from unique. Thousands of cars are stolen each year in Los Angeles, stripped for spare parts and abandoned on the streets. The number of vehicles stolen last year in Los Angeles increased by nearly 17%, from 51,868 in 1985 to 60,713 in 1986. Nationwide,
1.1 million cars were stolen in 1985 at an estimated loss of $5 billion. And California led all other states with 177,000 reported thefts in 1985.
In a city where one's car is often considered one's castle, people have learned to make locks, alarms and a constant lookout for thieves part of their daily lives.
In some neighborhoods along Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, residents call the sound of car alarms in the middle of the night "the Westside whippoorwill."
Even though Goldman's car was locked and the alarm was set, it was stolen during the day from a parking lot on Wilshire Boulevard. Her car was among 500 autos reported stolen in February in the Wilshire Division, which extends from La Cienega Boulevard on the west to Normandie Avenue on the east, and from Beverly Boulevard on the north to the Santa Monica Freeway to the south. Last year, there were 5,258 cars stolen in the division and only five detectives investigating.
The police found Goldman's Mercedes by chance. They followed a man in a stolen Ferrari to a garage, where they discovered her car and the ownership records of four other Mercedeses.
Goldman did not see her car until days later. "It was revolting, awful," she said.
"I never get really attached to things, only people," she said. "This car, however, was different. It was a surprise birthday present from my husband."
"One day in a car wash, the young man drying the car said, 'Lady, how did you get this great car--I want one too!'
" 'You can get one too,' I said, 'that is the great thing about America. You can get anything you want, just work hard, save your money, get a better job, learn more, get another better job and sooner than you think you can have anything you really want.' "
Goldman said she did not think car thieves would be interested in her advice.
Richard Broussard, 19, certainly was not interested. Broussard did not take Goldman's car, but he admits to making thousands of dollars a week as a member of a ring of thieves who stole Toyota Celicas, Supras, pickups and vans. Broussard was arrested in September in a stolen Nissan pickup.
During the months of July, August and September, Broussard's ring was responsible for the theft of more than 300 cars on the Westside.
For Broussard, stealing cars offered easy money and a challenge.
'It Was a Game'
"I did it out of curiosity and for the money," he said. "It was a game. I wanted to see how fast I could get at it. It would take me 40 seconds to pop open a car and start it. I guess I pushed my luck too far, if you call it luck."
"I don't look like a car thief. I dress up real nice and go out there and say to myself that the car belongs to me. I look like I own it. It is just a matter of confidence."
He said he and his friends played a game to see who could steal the most cars. Sometimes he would take 15 cars a week. "I was the best, I won and I got busted," he said.
"I put my parents through hell and now I'm sorry for it," he said.
Detective Reiser said the ring stole cars mostly for the seats and stereos, which could be sold quickly to auto suppliers. Radios sold for between $800 and $1,200, and seats for as much as $1,800 a pair.
"Once the parts are stripped off the cars they are hard to track," Reiser said.
After his arrest, Broussard showed the police more than 60 locations where he had stolen cars, and the police were able to clear more than 40 cases, the detective said. Broussard also helped police investigate several auto supply dealers who routinely purchased stolen parts. Several arrests were made, Reiser said.