Detention of postal workers leads to arrest of car theft ring

DETROIT (AP) — Thieves are using cloned key fobs to steal Dodges muscle cars and other high-powered vehicles directly from dealers and even automakers in Michigan, then sell them for tens of thousands of dollars less than they’re worth, according to authorities and court records.

For one Ohio-based theft ring, everything came crashing down after the arrest of a U.S. postal worker in January led authorities to link several men to brazen car thefts in the Detroit area, long home to the nation’s biggest automakers, including Dodge, which is now owned by the international conglomerate Stellantis.

Investigators then discovered that new Chargers, Challengers, Durangos and Ram pickups worth $50,000 to $100,000 were showing up at shipping ports in Ohio, Indianapolis and the East Coast after being sold on the street for $3,500 to $15,000, according to the criminal complaint.

Thieves in the Detroit area are primarily looking for Dodge vehicles with Hellcat engines, including Chargers and Challengers — “the fast ones,” Sgt. Jerry Hanna of Macomb’s Auto Theft Squad said.

“If patrol cars catch them, they don’t stop and are faster than patrol cars. It’s 150 miles an hour all day long,” he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they force them directly from retail outlets and assembly facilities.

This year alone, about half a dozen vehicles – primarily Dodge Ram TRX pickups – were taken from the lot outside the Macomb County assembly plant.

After security measures were increased in some lots with Dodge vehicles, more than ten 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor trucks were taken from the lot in suburban Dearborn in June. More than a dozen Ford Mustangs were stolen in early September from a car factory in Flat Rock, southeast of Detroit.

Thieves targeted Dodges using hand-held electronic “pro pads” — a locksmith’s tool that can clone keys by plugging them into interior ports in the vehicles, according to a federal complaint in the Ohio case.

Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles when they stopped Devin Rice on Jan. 31 after a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, was robbed of his mailbox key. But court records show that a search of his car and then his home turned up not only stolen mail, fake checks, credit and debit cards, but also a Ram pickup, a Range Rover SUV and a Dodge with a Hellcat engine — all stolen.

Rice and others were charged in federal court in Ohio in June. Jaylen Harris, Lavelle Jones and Hakim Benjamin were charged with conspiracy and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. Rice, Harris and Jones were also charged with mail theft. Their trials are scheduled for next year.

Harris’ attorney declined comment. The AP left emails and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

Harris told the FBI that he and Jones had been in contact via Instagram with people in the Detroit area to obtain stolen vehicles, according to the complaint. Harris said those thieves “also sold to customers in other areas, including Chicago and Indianapolis,” according to the complaint.

Videos posted on social media show how the high-powered vehicles overtook the police and evaded them.

The judge stated in the arrest warrant that “Benjamin was driving a 2022 Dodge Challenger valued at $95,000 at a speed of 120 miles per hour down State Route 2 in Ohio on a Sunday evening in February.”

“The spike strips were ultimately necessary to remind Benjamin that the law required him to comply with police orders,” the judge wrote.

About two years ago, police in Ottawa County, Ohio, began noticing vehicle explosions along State Route 2. The sheriff’s office received calls about reckless driving, Capt. Aaron Leist said.

“These cars go 140-150 mph. All have Hellcat engines. We had a lot of quests. We didn’t catch them all,” he said.

Investigators learned that the vehicles were mostly stolen in the Detroit area and driven to Cleveland. Some were also destined for Memphis, Tennessee, Leist said.

“We started working with (Stellantis) in early 2022,” he said. “They would call us and tell us, “We’ve run out of these cars.””

A spokeswoman for Stellantis declined to comment.

Additional security measures at some lots included concrete barriers, according to police.

Then last fall, a dealership showroom northwest of Detroit was broken into. Someone drove a Ram pickup through the glass wall of the building and “all the other cars followed,” said Jeff Schneider, general manager of Szott Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Highland Township.

“I think they managed to find some keys in the desk drawer and used them,” he added.

Police tracked one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT worth about $100,000, to a suburb northwest of Detroit. The driver crashed into a brick wall while fleeing. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, a 2021 Dodge Ram TRX and a 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later found.

Authorities arrested four people. It was not believed that they stole the vehicles, but that they paid $5,000 for one.

“In the Detroit area, they sell for about $3,500,” Hanna said. “Once they get that money in their pockets, they go out and steal another one.”

For dealers and their insurance companies, the costs are high. Even recovered vehicles cannot be sold for what they were once worth.

Schneider said his dealership came up with an “old school” solution: parking boots.

“It’s a deterrent that works incredibly well,” he said. “We put boots on all hellcats.”

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