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Flashy Wheel Rims Lure Deadly Violence : Crime: LAPD South Bureau says robbers kill about 10 people a year.


They sparkle and beckon, luring the eye into an intricate, mesmerizing tunnel of deep-set cold, shiny chrome or gold-plated spokes. Wheel rims make the car, transforming even a rusty junker into a flashy, cherried-out ride.

"Killer rims," they're called, $1,500 to $7,000 a set. And now they are living up to their name.

In August, a college basketball player lost his life on Normandie Avenue--one of about 10 people killed every year for rims in the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau alone, according to detectives, who fear that a pattern of violence has emerged as rims have gained popularity.

In a chilling twist in Southern California car culture, drivers live and die over their wheels. Like overpriced sneakers, expensive rims have become improbable emblems of power and fearlessness, especially in crime-ridden neighborhoods where aficionados flirt with disaster every time they hit the streets.

"Drive a car with flashy wheels and you are waving a red flag that says: 'Come get me,' " said Los Angeles Police Detective Pete Razanskas, who investigated the slaying of an 11-year-old boy in a bungled South-Central Los Angeles rimjacking last year.

Charlo Davis, a 23-year-old high-scoring guard on Cal State Sacramento's basketball team, found out the hard way. He liked the way that Dayton wire wheel rims looked on his baby blue 1989 Thunderbird. He liked driving down the street and seeing heads turn.

On Aug. 24, three days before he was scheduled to take an exam to become a police officer, Davis was shot dead at the carwash a few blocks from his mother's house.

"I told him to take those wheels off that car; I hated those wheels," said Virginia Davis, his mother, crying softly. "I was so upset with that car, I wanted to beat it with a hammer. But that wouldn't have done me any good--it still wouldn't have brought Charlo back."

Launched by the lowriders of the 1950s and '60s, the rim fad has taken on a new dimension in recent years as manufacturers started using gold plating, stoking up the cost and dazzle. Today, Dayton Wire Wheels, produced by an Ohio-based company, are the rim of choice. Popularized by various rap stars, including Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose songs refer to "D's" or "Danas," rims have become more mainstream, appealing to the driver who wants to add glitter to an otherwise ordinary chassis.

Jim Schardt, a company vice president who was reluctant to comment on the violence connected to the rims, defended the wheels. "People will kill people for anything; people in L.A. certainly know that," he said before hanging up on a reporter.

But police believe that rims have become a factor. When a car-related crime is reported, detectives now want to know not only what type of automobile is involved but what kind of wheels.

"This is something that's getting worse every year. As the callousness of people grows, so does the lack of respect for people's property," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commanding officer of the LAPD's South Bureau homicide unit. "Many times we are unable to determine the exact cause of a carjacking, but all too often we find the rims are there."

In an age of computerized automobile manufacturing, car rims--one of the most vulnerable parts of a vehicle, subjected to dings during parking, dirt from the streets and water from inclement weather--are also one of the easiest areas to personalize, said Brenda Jo Bright, a professor of Latin and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth College.

"It's one of the simplest modifications to make your car look like you've really done something different," said Bright, who is writing a book about lowrider culture. "Cars are important vehicles metaphorically and intrinsically for the kinds of things people are allowed to do and expected to do."

In the past, such transformations, whether wheels or exquisite paint jobs, inspired robbers but not violence.

It boils down to grim economics. Stolen rims move fast on the black market, selling for about half their retail price.

"It's easy money," said Steven, 20, who asked that only his first name be used because he's looking for legitimate work after serving three years at Soledad state prison for holding a gun to a woman's head and commandeering her car.

The blue Chevrolet Blazer coming out of Cypress College caught Steven's eye because it sported expensive rims. He figured that he could net as much for the wheels--$1,000--as for the car. So Steven thrust a 9-millimeter gun in the driver's face and demanded her car. The woman slammed the accelerator and peeled out. According to his probation officer, Steven jumped into a car driven by an accomplice and chased his prey along the freeway, shooting out her rear window. When his victim got stuck in Orange County rush-hour traffic, he got out and, clutching the gun, ordered her to give up the car.

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