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Grand Theft Auto--Emotional Costs Run High

June 19, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the club, Ira Reiner.

When the Los Angeles district attorney's county car was ripped off at gunpoint Monday night, Reiner joined a multitude of Southland residents--Mayor Tom Bradley and actress Morgan Fairchild, to name a couple of prominent ones--who have been maliciously deprived of their automobiles.

At a noon press conference Thursday, Reiner said the daylight incident in front of a busy and exclusive restaurant in which his security guard was briefly kidnapped, proved that "No one's safe anywhere, anytime. . . . They didn't even hide the gun."

Grand theft auto.

End of the Romance

Although the Reiner case is somewhat unusual, it illustrates what may be the quintessential Los Angeles crime. It involves money, mobility and ego. In extreme cases it causes people to fall out of love with their automobiles, ending romances that endured clogged freeways, high monthly payments and the little betrayals of dead batteries, scratched paint and flat tires.

"Being deprived of wheels in Los Angeles is akin to death. . . . You suddenly become a pedestrian," said Joe Molina, a Woodland Hills public relations executive whose wheels have been lifted and recovered--once in bits and pieces--four times in the last five years. "You feel like an absolute fool, the world's biggest dolt." Ironically, Molina's biggest clients are in car-related businesses.

As for Reiner, his reactions were fear and anger. "The first (reaction is) one's fear and then it's anger," he said at the press conference. The district attorney said it was the first time he has ever been a victim of a crime. He added, however, that since he was in the restaurant at the time of the theft, his biggest worry was the effect of the crime on his children, 11-year-old Annie and 9-year-old Tommy.

Reiner said he didn't immediately tell his children of the incident because he didn't want to spoil the family party at Spago. But when they learned the car had been stolen, "The kids were real upset," he said. ". . . It took about two hours to calm them down. . . . As you see the effect it has on them, it sears it (the impact of the crime) deeper." Dr. Hugh Chee, a Montebello dentist, recalled that he "felt naked in L.A." when his Volkswagen GTI was stolen early last year and found in a few days. "I had to cancel my patients that morning," he added. "Without wheels I'm chained . . . and I didn't like the car that I rented."

Los Angeles County Leads Pack

In sheer numbers, Los Angeles County leads the nation in stolen vehicles: 103,683 were stolen last year, a 14% increase from the year before and about half of all the vehicles stolen in the state, according to the California Highway Patrol. Vehicle registrations in the county total some 5.5 million. Toyotas, both cars and pickup trucks, were the vehicles of choice, with various models ranking first, third, fourth, seventh and ninth on the list of most often stolen cars. Volkswagen sedans made from 1958 through 1967 were second on the volume list. The value of the cars stolen in the state last year is estimated at $750 million.

But the psychological wreckage that's left behind by a car theft is never counted in the plethora of statistics generated by agencies keeping track of a "business" that nationally costs the public $6 billion a year.

For instance, Chee said he felt "quite invaded and very angry" when he left his apartment building and couldn't find his car. By one measure--frequency of insurance claims--Chee's Volkswagen is the most frequently stolen or broken into model of car in the country, according to a report in the June 15 issue of Automotive News.

Timothy Moretz, a garment industry inspector who lives in South Pasadena, used much the same language to describe his feelings when he learned his car had been stolen last month.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, my car's been stolen," he recalled. "I felt very invaded--my space had been invaded. It was like somebody had come into my home."

And Moretz was lucky. His car was missing only about three hours; he learned of the theft when police told him they had recovered the car. However, the thief scampered away when he and another man were interrupted in the process of transferring the wheels on his 1982 Datsun 310 to a similar model, Moretz said.

There is a certain eeriness about some car thefts that tends to reverberate in victims' minds long after the vehicle has been recovered or the insurance company has settled up.

Lorie Bruce, who now works for KCET, said she had two cars--a Volkswagen and a Toyota--stolen from the same spot in a shopping center parking lot almost exactly a year apart. Only the Toyota, minus its wheels, was recovered. A friend, she said, had his car broken into five times in succession, all at Dodger Stadium. "Every time he went to a ball game, his car was broken into."

A Thief's Displeasure

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