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Area's Mercedes Are Tempting Targets for Air Bag Thieves


When five Mercedes-Benzes were burglarized during a single August evening in Beverly Hills, the thieves passed over the expensive German stereos for even bigger loot--the cars' air bags.

This new trend in crime has traveled across the nation, in communities from St. Louis to the San Fernando Valley, according to insurance carriers. And now, authorities say, air bag thefts have become a troubling trend in many Westside communities.

"It used to be nothing but stereos; now it's air bags," said one Los Angeles police detective.

Thieves have hit the area sporadically, with parts of West Los Angeles reporting several hundred air bag thefts since February; other communities, including Santa Monica and West Hollywood, have not been noticeably affected, according to law enforcement officials.

Although it is a national crime trend, insurance industry experts say, air bag thefts are too new to have generated reliable statistics. But experts agree that air bag thefts have spread. The first reported theft was in Detroit in late 1992, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based national trade group.

The inflation in air bag thievery is a matter of simple economics, police said. The air bags can be easily removed from an automobile and sold to disreputable auto body shops for several hundred dollars--considerably more than the value of a stolen stereo on the streets.

"(The thieves) can smoke a lot of crack (cocaine) with $200. They may get about $50 worth of crack for three stereos," Culver City Police Lt. Tom Gabor said.

The auto repair shops then charge car owners as much as $3,000 for the stolen air bags, police said.

Air bags, which are installed in the steering column and on the passenger side of the dashboard, are designed to briefly inflate to cushion the impact of a collision of 15 m.p.h. or more. Once inflated, the bag becomes unusable and a new one must be purchased and installed.

Police report the taking of air bags from cars parked on streets, in driveways and subterranean garages, and even at auto dealerships, police said. Because air bags are not difficult or time-consuming to remove--it takes less than two minutes, police said--the thieves usually break into several cars in one stop.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said thieves have repeatedly hit the well-lit automobile dealerships along Highway 101, breaking into numerous new cars each time.

Mercedes-Benzes have been a favorite target of the thieves, accounting for about 70% of the stolen air bags in West Los Angeles, said Detective Jeff Brumagin. Police speculate that Mercedes-Benzes are targeted more often because of their value.

"One poor guy got his Mercedes broken into twice, and the air bag was taken both times," Brumagin said.

But not only high-end luxury automobiles are being marked, police said. Other frequently hit models include the lower-priced Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Last month, three Accords parked along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu were hit in one night, Sheriff's Detective Richard Schilling said. The thieves left empty steering columns.

A $3,000 estimate to replace the stolen air bag in a 1992 Honda recently prompted one automobile owner to do without the safety device.

Auto body shop receptionist Michelle Douglas said she had brought her grandmother's Accord into the Santa Monica shop to have its stolen stereo, hubcaps and spare tire replaced. But after looking at the hefty price tag, her grandmother decided to skip the air bag and leave the gaping hole in the steering wheel, Douglas said.

Police officers indicate that the hardest hit area on the Westside appears to be in the area patrolled by the LAPD's West Los Angeles Division.

"We were getting as many as three or four air bags stolen a night during the heavy periods," Brumagin said.

"They had been getting nailed in the (San Fernando) Valley, and then we started getting it," Brumagin said. "They rotate out of our area, and then they come back."

Sheriff's officials in Malibu and police in Culver City and Beverly Hills all report sporadic thefts, but not a consistent nightly problem.

Beverly Hills had its only air bag theft incidents in August, when thieves smashed windows on five Mercedes-Benzes to get at the air bags, Beverly Hills Detective Joe Chirillo said. The cars were in subterranean garages within blocks of each other, he said.

Other communities, such as Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Marina del Rey and Mar Vista, have not had any such theft reports, spokesmen for law enforcement agencies in those areas said.

"We've heard L.A. is having a problem, but Santa Monica is not," said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Gary Gallinot, speculating that the increased police patrols in the downtown area may have prevented problems.

In West Hollywood, deputies said they had heard about the air bag thefts from other police and through the media, adding that they were surprised that they have been spared--at least so far.

"It may catch on here. If (thieves) can get a lot more money than with a stereo, I'm sure they'll gravitate to it," said one deputy in West Hollywood.

Police say there is little one can do to protect an air bag. Some law enforcement agencies report that a locking device over the steering wheel may help, but others say such a device will not slow down a car burglar with the right tools.

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