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Pair's Car Theft Toll May Be 600

The homeless men are accused of stealing vehicles in L.A. to support drug habits.

January 28, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

They preyed on large swaths of Koreatown, Mid-Wilshire and Jefferson Park, sometimes making off with two cars a night.

But police said Friday that the two alleged car thieves were less interested in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes than in the tried-and-true Toyota Camry. Indeed, detectives think the suspects stole as many as 600 cars in the Wilshire area over the last year -- roughly a third of all vehicles taken in the police district.

And they were not part of a sophisticated car-theft ring.

Rather, authorities say, the suspects -- Carlos Contreras, 37, and Abelino Gonzales, 41 -- are homeless people who made off with the cars and stole any valuables inside to feed their drug habits. (Both pleaded not guilty in court earlier this week.)

Their secret? Los Angeles Police Det. Frank Carrillo said they used "shaved keys" -- plain car keys, which can be bought at a hardware store or junkyard, that are filed down -- to pick door and ignition locks.

"If you shave the girth of a key, most often it will unlock a car," Carrillo said. When Contreras and Gonzales were arrested this week, they possessed more than 20 shaved keys, he said.

The number of grand theft auto cases declined 14% across Los Angeles last year as part of a major drop in crime overall. But there were still 26,573 cars stolen.

The LAPD in the past has dealt with highly organized groups that systematically stole expensive cars and took them to "chop shops" to be disassembled and their parts resold.

But this case -- despite the high number of thefts -- was low-tech, authorities said.

Shaved keys are particularly effective on Toyotas and Hondas, which made up nearly half of all the cars stolen in the Wilshire area in 2005, Carrillo said. Camrys are the most-often stolen cars in the area.

Carrillo, who heads the auto unit in the Wilshire Division, said he thought the suspects sold valuables in the cars, such as stereos, on the street to "support their drug habits."

Then they would abandon the cars on the street, police said.

Detectives began this month to think there was a pattern to the thefts.

Carrillo worked with in-house statistical analysts to figure out how many cars were being stolen during various periods at certain locations throughout the Wilshire area.

He took that information to roll call meetings to let patrol officers know when and where they should be on the lookout for car thieves.

An LAPD unit cruising around Pico Boulevard and Western Avenue about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday noticed two parked Camrys and decided to keep an eye on them.

Eventually, the suspects approached the cars and tried to break in, Carrillo said.

Contreras was being held on $85,000 bail, and Gonzales was being held in lieu of $60,000.

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