Captured on a police videotape, the teen-ager slipped a filed key into the Datsun door and, with a few twists, was inside--all in about six seconds. Moments later, the ignition turned over and the engine growled.
In a new and swift technique, thieves in Southern California and beyond have developed a master key that opens doors and starts ignitions--primarily of Japanese cars--in less than 30 seconds.
The keys, regular car keys that have been filed down to a point, first appeared as a serious problem in Southern California about two years ago and have since spread to Northern California, Texas, Colorado, Louisiana, Virginia, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
"While now it's mostly a Southern California problem," said Lee Ballard, secretary for the International Assn. of Auto Theft Investigators, "it's national in its scope."
It is estimated that the keys are used in a quarter of the thefts of Toyotas, Datsuns and Nissans in California. "And that's a conservative estimate," said Rex Lewellen, Western states manager for the National Automobile Theft Bureau.
Top 10 on Thieves' List
In the first half of this year, eight of the 10-most-often stolen cars in California were Toyotas, Nissans or Datsuns, according to the California Highway Patrol. Beginning with the 1985 models, the name Nissan replaced Datsun.
Last April, the CHP sent a training manual from Sacramento to all its regional offices describing the technique. "We're very concerned," said Capt. Roger Newquist, commander of CHP investigative services.
In Los Angeles County, the auto-theft capital of the United States, police believe the filed keys account for only a "small percentage" of the total number of stolen vehicles.
"It's hard to say," admitted Sgt. Bill Lovold of the Los Angeles Police Department's burglary auto theft division. He added that it is difficult to tell if the car was stolen with a key left by the owner in the ignition or if someone used a filed key.
In Orange County, however, CHP vehicle theft investigator Bill Bierer figures "the great majority" of stolen Japanese cars are taken with the filed keys. "We have a very, very large problem," he said. "They are very sophisticated."
Vehicle theft and burglary is a $6-billion problem in the United States and one that is growing, according to the National Automobile Theft Bureau, a group formed by insurance companies to work with police in fighting vehicle theft. In California, the loss last year was almost $750 million, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Statistics.
No Statistics on Methods
But law enforcement agencies and insurance companies do not break down vehicle theft statistics by the various methods used to separate people from their wheels: Slim Jims, picks, filed keys, "slam hammers" and rocks. Almost no one hot-wires a car anymore, police say.
Unless a thief is stopped with one of the filed keys in the ignition and the police officer knows to ask that the key be removed, there is no way to tell for sure that a car is being stolen.
"You'd be amazed," said Sgt. Harry Hoover of the Westminster Police Department. "They'll walk down a line of cars at a shopping mall, open the door so fast, hop in and drive away. You'd be sure it was their car. It's so simple."
Westminster Detectives Marcus Frank and Grant Varner are credited with first recognizing the extent of the problem. In August, 1986, the Westminster Police Department made a nationally distributed training videotape, "Auto Theft Made Easy," showing a 15-year-old using a filed key.
Parking lots are the thieves' most popular hunting grounds, particularly shopping centers and large apartment complexes.
The thieves, generally teen-age boys, tend to work in groups of two to six, often with girls as lookouts, police say. "It's shocking because it's so easy, and we've had them as young as 11," Garden Grove Detective Leroy Vaughn said.
"Usually they'll be squatting, like they're in a conversation, near a curb or bumper, using that to file the key," Hoover said.
The filed keys work like a pick to open car doors and in the same manner to turn the ignition over, Frank said. A key that may not open one Toyota may work in the same model elsewhere in the same parking lot so the thieves keep trying, usually until one more vehicle is added to the more than 200,000 expected to be stolen in California this year.
"They use a shotgun approach until sooner or later one works," Frank said. "If they can't get inside in 30 seconds, they move on."
Roughly half the cars stolen this way appear to be taken by joy riders who steal just the stereos, police say. The rest, recovered later, are stripped by professionals of the seats, headliners, steering wheels, dashboards, tops and the wheels. A pair of 1987 Toyota Supra seats, for example, retail for more than $3,000, according to one Southern California Toyota dealer.