The auto thieves stole up to 75 Toyota Tacoma pick-up trucks, created fake ownership papers and then sold them to unsuspecting buyers for $5,000-$10,000 a pop.
The ruse worked – until an Anaheim Police detective arrested an auto thief and started to piece together information about the theft ring.
The work eventually led to five men being charged with an array of crimes ranging from receiving stolen property to grand theft.
Det. Kevin Flanagan led the countywide effort that broke the ring.
“He would be aware of lo-jack hits and would respond to do surveillance work on his days off,” said Sgt. Rick Martinez. “He’s a great detective.”
The aggressive work of auto theft details – and enhanced coordination among law enforcement agencies – is having an impact on car thefts. In the past year alone, auto thefts are down nearly 20 percent. Of the vehicles stolen in 2008, nearly 87 percent were successfully recovered.
Behind the Badge asked Det. Flanagan to discuss the case – and auto thefts in general.
BTB: What was the big break that led to the arrests?
Det. Flanagan: There were two. The first was when Det. Greg Snell of the Vehicle Theft detail and I located a stolen Tacoma from Placentia parked in a residential area. It matched the type commonly stolen by the suspects. A witness saw a suspect drop the stolen Tacoma off and provided a description and a license plate number to a suspect vehicle that was involved. The second was when, after weeks of searching for this possible suspect vehicle, we located it.
BTB: How slick was their scheme compared to other theft rings you’ve encountered?
Det. Flanagan: Overall their operation was fairly well planned and executed. I think the suspects became comfortable stealing the vehicles and selling them to unsuspecting buyers.
BTB: How important are cooperative law enforcement efforts such as the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force in helping to solve crime?
Det. Flanagan: These cooperative efforts by units such as the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force and local police department’s auto theft units are invaluable for information sharing and investigative manpower.
BTB: What trends are you seeing?
Det. Flanagan: A lot of what we are seeing involves thieves stealing vehicles for financial profit. We have seen a decrease in vehicles just being taken for transportation or joy rides, but we have found many different schemes that suspects are using to make money either off the stolen vehicles or the parts from the stolen vehicles.
BTB: What advice would you give to help citizens protect themselves?
Det. Flanagan: I would say the best thing to remember is that if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. For example, the people buying these Tacomas were buying vehicles for $5,000 that had blue book values of $15,000. In regards to common vehicle theft, there are several things you can do. The ones I have seen that work the best are visual deterrents such as car alarms and steering wheel club-like devices, theft recovery devices such as LoJack and just simply parking your car where it makes it less inviting to be stolen, such as in a well-lit area. All of these things help somewhat and hopefully make it so that the suspect might decide to move on to the next car if yours looks harder to steal. There are no guarantees that a determined suspect will not steal your car if he really wants it.