The employees of Freeman Tow have an informed perspective on East Bay auto theft; after all, for more than thirty years their company has had a contract to tow the stolen cars recovered by the Richmond police. And this year, business is particularly good. "Let me put it this way," says the company's tow manager, who wishes to be known only as Jim, "we tow an average of four or five a day."
Considering that Freeman Tow is only one of several such companies, an astonishing number of stolen cars are turning up in Richmond, far more than would be expected in a city suffering from an already-high 1,112 reported auto thefts in the first half of 2002. But Richmond's rising recovery rate happens to correspond with a recent increase in car theft in Sonoma County, particularly Santa Rosa. This year, that county's auto-theft rate grew by an astonishing 36 percent, and county officials say roughly one-fifth of those vehicles turned up in Richmond. Frustrated Sonoma County officials have concluded that if a car disappears from a Santa Rosa shopping mall, they may need to go looking for it the next day in Richmond, where it will likely be abandoned in a public area and missing a few key parts. Compare Sonoma County's thirty-six percent surge with the twelve percent rise in Alameda County or the fourteen percent statewide increase, and it's easy to see that something strange is happening along the 580 corridor. But what?
A clue can be found in what the thieves take. Everything under the hood is typically left intact, while these vehicles are generally missing their flashiest decorative features -- tires, rims, stereos, spoilers, fenders. "It's not a significant body strip," says Detective Joe Anderson of Richmond's property crimes unit, who more or less comprises the department's auto-theft detail. The cars that turn up at Freeman Tow bear out that pattern. "Seventy percent of them are stolen because of their wheels," reports Jim. "Twenty percent are stolen for their interior, and ten percent for their motors and transmission." Another clue is that the majority of the cars stolen are sporty imports, primarily models made by Honda, although Acuras and Toyota Camrys are also popular. Lastly, police are finding the missing cars everywhere -- driveways, roadsides, shopping center parking lots -- but not inside illegal "chop shops," where cars would normally be more thoroughly broken down for parts.
All the clues point to a very specific kind of thief, juveniles who are stealing cars not to joyride to the mall, or sell as-is, or even to remove the motor for reincarnation in a powerful street racer. Police believe these young thieves are stealing parts to resell to import-auto enthusiasts who want to trick their cars out with the most stylish gear.
But the culture of highly modified import cars is a very insular one. It can be hard to get insiders to talk about how theft has impacted their community, perhaps because they are leery of attracting negative attention to what is essentially an underground scene -- albeit one with a rising public profile. It has its own magazines, such as Import Tuner; Web sites by the dozen offer tips on how to customize your ride, host user forums where people complain about parts theft, and post news about interactions with police. Some sites even have their own publicity defense mechanisms, requiring users to fill out lengthy questionnaires describing their own cars before they can gain admission to the site.
Outsiders might easily confuse sports-compact modification, which is essentially a car-show-and-cruising scene, with the also-increasingly popular street-racing scene. But while the latter pursues speed, the former emphasizes looks. Both cults are making their way into the public's attention span, especially after the hit movie The Fast and the Furious spawned a renewed appreciation for youthful car culture. But tricked-out imports were Bay Area favorites long before street-racing movies were even a glimmer in Vin Diesel's eye, and showcasing them remains a favorite local sport. The Wednesday night amateur races at the Infineon raceway in Sonoma County (formerly Sears Point), and the notoriously ad hoc local scrambles known as "sideshows" give car enthusiasts of all stripes a place to see and be seen. Highway Patrol Sgt. Ron York, supervisor of the Sonoma County Auto Theft Task Force, says the parts that go missing from his county are more likely to turn up on a hobbyist's car than on a racer. "It has nothing to do with performance; it's all about appearance," he says.
Car thieves find a ready market for stolen accessories by offering deep discounts over what one would pay at a legitimate car shop. After all, although young drivers may crave luxuries such as Recaro seats and Alpine stereo systems, few can easily afford such items. "People are buying high-end product for dimes on the dollar," says York. But selling stolen parts is still lucrative, because cars sold piecemeal are worth more than they are intact. "If you put together a car based on buying the parts piece by piece, it would cost you about ten times as much as you would have to pay for it assembled," says Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, which tracks auto-theft trends for the insurance industry. "There's a black market out there for used parts, and a lot of unscrupulous mechanic shops that wouldn't hesitate to buy cheap stolen parts as opposed to brand-new parts." Police believe this makes auto-parts theft an attractive option to someone who wants to make quick money to support their own expensive car hobby or drug habit.
Even if your car goes missing, the chances are you'll see it again, albeit perhaps minus some of its flashier accoutrements. The CHP estimates that more than ninety percent of stolen vehicles are eventually recovered. But decorative parts themselves are often easy to steal yet hard to track, which compounds the challenge for police. Hondas and Camrys manufactured in the mid-'90s have lock and ignition mechanisms that are famously easy to breach, and parts such as fenders and tires are easily interchangeable. "As you start to break a car apart, the smaller the piece is, the harder it is to trace," notes Lieutenant David Kozicki, traffic division commander for the Oakland Police Department, which combats a similar parts-theft problem. Unlike engines and transmission parts, aftermarket parts usually aren't engraved with serial numbers, making them hard to recover. However, Kozicki notes that some manufacturers are beginning to serialize a wider variety of parts for just this reason.
Law enforcement hasn't had much luck in tracking down the people behind the exodus of import cars from Sonoma County to Richmond. York says there have been many arrests, but the resulting incarcerations haven't dramatically dented the trend. Auto-theft sentences are typically fairly short, running from a year in county jail to between six months and four years in state prison. And there doesn't appear to be one mastermind orchestrating the thefts, either, although authorities in Richmond and Sonoma County are putting their heads together to see if they can come up with some common suspects. "We have found links, but it's not like a gang is out stealing cars to support their gang activity," says York. "It's more like these young adults have nothing better to do than go out and steal cars at night and sell tires during the day."