Dude Where's My Car?

Nearly 58,000 cars "found" new owners in 2002, making Arizona the U.S. leader in per-capita auto theft.

It sounds too good to be true. Just stick the key in, jiggle it around a little, and presto: Any Chrysler product manufactured between 1992 and 1999 will open and start.

At first, it is too good to be true. A Jeep. Then a Concorde. Then a Neon. Then a Voyager. Nothing.

Was it a rip-off, $25 for this so-called master key that wasn't opening anything? And the Chrysler version is for beginners, according to, which also sells one-size-fits-all keys for Saturns, Chevys, Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans.

Tips left by veteran break-in artists on the Web site's message board are encouraging. There is, it seems, a certain Zen to stealing cars. Do not force things. If it's not opening, you're probably trying too hard. Relax and try again, grasshopper.

With this in mind, a 1994 Dodge Dakota pickup, complete with kick-ass stereo, extended cab and glorious emerald-green paint job, looks doable.

Deep breath. Visualize. Slide the key halfway into the driver's side, turning it gently, gently, while moving it up and down.

A click! The key turns slightly.

Keep going, deeper into the lock. Another click. The key turns even farther. Bury it as deep as it'll go, hold your breath, and give it one more easy-does-it turn. Bingo. You're inside.

In all of five seconds.

Mark Fisher, owner of Mesa-based, doesn't lie. No bulky screwdrivers or Slim Jims to tote around, no telltale broken windows or locks to draw attention from police. Just a set of master keys in your pocket and a little practice, and virtually any car can be yours.

Fisher wasn't home when New Times paid a visit, but a man who opened the door confirmed that Apartment 352 -- called Suite 352 on Fisher's Web site -- is the business address for Car Master Keys. The man, who identified himself as Fisher's father, says his son has been spending a lot of time in New Mexico lately. Fisher didn't return a phone call or e-mail message.

But he left a lasting impression. You can't go anywhere now without noticing Chryslers, at stop lights, in parking lots, crawling beside you in rush-hour traffic. You can't help wondering: How long would it take to steal that car? You feel omnipotent. And you have plenty of company here in Maricopa County, car-theft capital of America.

With nearly 58,000 cars stolen in 2002 (the most recent year complete numbers are available), Arizona is tops in the nation in per-capita auto theft, and Maricopa County, where nearly 80 percent of the thefts occur, is the epicenter. In Phoenix, the number of car thefts has skyrocketed from 18,000 in 1999 to 25,700 last year. Just one in 10 thefts is solved.

Catching car thieves takes patience, luck and old-fashioned police work. Sometimes, even that's not enough. Take this kid with a wide smile and an even bigger gold chain around his neck who jumps out of a Nissan pickup truck, right in front of Phoenix Police Sergeant Pete Fenton.

The kid's not interested in Fenton, who's wearing jeans and a shirt from a garbage company with "Will" embroidered on the nametag. He is, however, drawn to another Nissan pickup truck that looks nearly identical to the one that just dropped him off.

Fenton doesn't want you to know the exact location of this hunting ground -- the central Phoenix parking lot is unspoiled territory for city auto-theft cops who've made more than 200 arrests here since stakeouts began in April 2002. The lot is a smorgasbord of Arizona's most commonly stolen vehicles: Dodge Neons, Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys, Chevy pickups and Nissans. The technique is absurdly simple: Wait for a thief to come along and then nab him. And police don't need any help from car alarms, which occasionally ring out with no one, cops included, paying the slightest bit of attention.

Police have posted a spotter on a rooftop and stationed plainclothes officers around the lot, ready to pounce. "You all know what's suspicious and what isn't," Fenton tells his fellow cops at a pre-stakeout briefing. "They stick out like sore thumbs."

This grinning kid in front of Fenton looks suspicious as hell. Once out of the truck -- which keeps cruising after dropping him off -- he strides straight for the parked Nissan, almost as if he owns it. But quick glances to the right, left and behind confirm Fenton's hunch: There's no good reason for this guy and his buddy to be driving around this parking lot, slowing down to rubberneck cars, then speeding up, passing plenty of open spaces. They're showing an inordinate interest in Nissans. It all fits.

But Fenton doesn't. A guy sitting in a Ford pickup with the engine running -- just sitting, just watching -- isn't what this mouse wants to see. The glance toward Fenton lasts a millisecond, but it's enough to keep the kid's hands in his pockets. Suddenly, the Nissan is the furthest thing from his mind -- he barely looks at it while he walks a slow circle, waiting for his friend to come back. Fenton radios to other officers, who watch the pair as they keep cruising, obviously shopping. They finally park, then stop at another car as they stroll across the lot. One officer thinks one of them just pulled a screwdriver from his waistband, but he can't be sure. No one has an unobstructed view. Did they just take a wheel cover? No, comes the answer over the radio. The car in question doesn't have wheel covers. The pair pause at a pickup, but keep walking. "The reason they left it was it's got a Club on it," an officer radios.  

The plates on the suspects' truck come back clean, but the cops keep watching until the pair leaves the area more than an hour later. They look younger than 18, so even if they did something to get themselves busted, they likely wouldn't go to jail. Fenton and his colleagues have learned from experience that young car thieves are routinely sprung within hours of being taken into custody, so why waste time booking them.

After three hours, the officers leave empty-handed. Someone else didn't. Right under their noses, someone swiped a Dodge Intrepid. The victim's purse, with keys inside, was stolen while she shopped. The cops figure the thief used the alarm controller on her key chain to find the car, which was gone before she realized her purse was missing. "It wouldn't have looked suspicious," the sergeant says.

Just bad luck, the cops figure. Fenton is more philosophical than frustrated. He knows the statistics as well as anyone, and the numbers say he'll get lucky soon enough.

Explanations abound for Arizona's astronomical theft rate. It's the sunny weather and lack of road salt -- cars don't rust, so Arizona parts are coveted by body shops that don't want to pay retail. It's Mexico -- thieves can easily take cars south of the border, never to be seen again. It's us -- if we'd just lock our cars, the theft rate would plummet.

There's some truth to all of this. But the bottom line is, stealing cars is easy, the penalties are light and the odds are in the thieves' favor.

The state is spending more than $4 million a year to combat auto theft, with the money coming from a 50-cent surcharge on vehicle registrations. But the theft rate has risen since the state started throwing money at the problem eight years ago. Preliminary numbers show thefts statewide finally decreased last year, says Mikel Longman, executive director of the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, but he cautions that Arizona has a long way to go. "It took us a long time to get to number one, and we're not going to knock ourselves out of it immediately," says Longman, whose agency distributes money from the registration surcharge to pay for public education programs and salaries for cops and prosecutors.

Auto theft can be discouraged, but nothing is foolproof:

· Steering-wheel locks and alarms may stymie the casual thief, but determined crooks can work around alarms and remove locks in seconds by sawing through the steering wheel.

· Some cities, notably Tempe, that enjoyed reductions in thefts after deploying bait cars last year say the numbers have bounced back up. And technology isn't perfect. Someone successfully stole -- and stripped -- a bait SUV from the Phoenix Police Department in December. The cops blame an equipment malfunction.

· Electronic license plate readers at the Douglas crossing last year recorded 148 stolen cars from Arizona entering Mexico over a five-month period, but police couldn't do anything about it. By the time the computer identifies a hot car, it's already across the border.

· The federal government has required automakers to increase the number of parts marked by identification numbers, but the feds say that hasn't reduced the theft rate.

· Automakers can make cars virtually theft-proof by electronically encrypting ignition systems so that only the right key will work. But manufacturers who sell parts to fix cracked steering columns have been slow to make the systems standard equipment.

· Theft rates decrease when officers take reports in person instead of by telephone, primarily because car owners are less likely to file false reports in hopes of collecting insurance money. In-person reports, which are more detailed than phone-ins, also help in recovering cars and apprehending thieves. Tucson, for instance, takes all reports in person and boasts one of the highest recovery rates in the state. But Phoenix and other Valley departments still take theft reports by telephone.  

· More cops can make a difference. In Texas, for example, the auto theft rate in El Paso has plummeted by 70 percent since the police department started focusing on car thieves a decade ago. El Paso has 30 of its 1,200 officers assigned to auto theft; by contrast, Phoenix, which employs 2,800 officers, has 32 cops on auto-theft detail. But more cops cost more money.

There's no shortage of statistics on stolen cars -- authorities can tell you exactly how many cars are stolen, the most commonly stolen vehicles and which days of the week thieves are likely to strike. But explanations behind the numbers are lacking. Auto theft just isn't sexy enough to attract much attention from academia.

"Auto theft is one of the least-studied crimes that is out there, compared with other crimes," says Charles Katz, an ASU West criminologist. "It's an insurable crime. It doesn't involve violence, and most people count themselves lucky if they're not harmed in a crime. If it's just a piece of property, you count your blessings and you move on."

Detective Dennis McNulty of the Arizona Department of Public Safety has spent a dozen years hunting car thieves. He doesn't need a professor to tell him the whys and hows of stealing cars. McNulty recalls a conversation with an ex-con he busted for stealing a car that belonged to a state corrections officer. "He says, `Listen: Look at my sheet. I don't hurt people. I steal. And it's too hot to walk.'

"That says it all right there."

Once the quarry, Jason is now meat, his string of auto thefts finally ended by the only thing that's ever worked: a long stint behind bars. He's one of an unknown number of Energizer bunnies who don't stop stealing cars until the system stops giving them breaks.

Jason (he agreed to talk about his crimes as long as his last name wasn't used) has lost count of the cars he's stolen, but he pegs the number at more than 500. The judge who sent him to prison called him a one-man crime wave and a threat to society. Even his mother says he belongs behind bars.

"I don't want to see my son in prison," she says. "I want my son to straighten up. But if he can't and he won't, I'm sorry: You deserve to be where you're at."

Jason is serving 13 years for vehicle theft and running a chop shop. It's the longest sentence ever handed out in Maricopa County for violation of the state's chop-shop statute. To hear Jason talk, he richly deserves it.

After his last arrest, he told a probation officer that he was turning over two or three Chevy pickups each week, selling parts to wrecking yards and intact vehicles to crooks who would take them to Mexico. The true scope, he says now, was much greater: His chop shop averaged a vehicle per day.

"Most people out there stealing cars aren't thinking about how they can get rid of it -- they'll steal a car and get rid of it just to get high one time," Jason says in a tone tinged by disgust for such thieves and pride in his own work. About eight people worked his chop-shop operation, Jason claims, with thieves being paid $5,000 apiece each month to steal cars. Jason says he would tell two-man crews which vehicles to steal, where they were parked and how they were locked so they'd know what tools to bring.

Jason can recite in detail just what it takes to steal a car. Master keys will work, but sheer force is faster. A dent puller applied to the ignition pulls the lock apart almost instantly. Then it's just a matter of inserting a screwdriver, turning it, and you're gone in less than 60 seconds. Bring a Taser; zapping the door-light switch that's wired to the alarm will blow the fuse. A Club-style steering wheel lock was never a problem. "The lock that's on the floor that keeps you from stepping on the brake, that's one of the best ones -- you have to step on the brake in order to put it in gear," he says. And always check the glove box. "Usually, people who have LoJacks are going to put that information in the glove box," he explains. "If you look in the glove box and see information about a LoJack, well, you've got to get rid of that car quick."

But Jason says he often left the stealing to others.  

"I was the scout. I put together the shopping list, and I made sure everything ran smoothly," he says. "Of course, every once in a while, if I wanted something, I'd go steal it for the rush." A car is worth much more in parts than it is intact, and Jason was after the money. "We didn't really mess around with the whole vehicles," he says. "We parted them down or we changed [VIN] numbers and shipped them off." The loot went to another state. "Probably 75 percent of the other people I know who are out there doing this are sending their stuff to Mexico," he says. "We can make more money if we shipped to other states, parted down. The market wasn't as flooded with what we were doing. We mostly stayed with tools and heavy equipment and toys, meaning dirt bikes, sand rails, jet skis -- that kind of thing."

Stealing earth-moving equipment isn't as tough as it sounds, but it does take balls. "I had master keys to the heavy equipment, mostly Caterpillars," Jason says. "You have to have a semi come in to load those up. The semi parks maybe a half-mile away, and I've got to drive it down the road like a half-mile." Police didn't worry him as he lumbered along. "Who's going to pull over a front-end loader?" he asks.

Jason claims he cleared $30,000 a month from his shop, which is hard to believe considering the stack of unpaid utility bills and disconnection notices that police found in the south Phoenix mobile home where he lived with his girlfriend. He also had a methamphetamine habit that cost $200 a day. "We're really living the life, huh?" chuckles Detective McNulty of DPS, who once hunted him. "He very well could have been making the money, but it was going in the pipe."

Jason insists it was more than meth. "It was partly the drug habit, but it was also partly being addicted to the adrenaline rush of it," he says. "I knew I'd get caught eventually."

Jason stole his first car when he was 12. It was the simplest of thefts. "He and a friend were walking and they found a car with keys in it and they decided to take it," recalls his mother, the only relative Jason has who still keeps in touch with him.

Jason neatly fits the profile of the typical car thief. "We know that 84 percent are males," says Katz, the ASU criminologist. "We know that about 60 percent are white. About two-thirds are under the age of 25, and about a third are 18 or younger. Most of them have a prior record of some sort, with about half having a felony prior record."

There is no evidence, Katz says, that car thieves turn into violent criminals. In that respect, at least, Jason is different. He has convictions for armed robbery in the late 1980s and for a 2000 assault in which he pleaded guilty to beating a man with a baseball bat over a $25 debt. He also served time in Colorado in the mid-1990s for burglary. Somewhere along the way, he got involved with the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious prison gang, and he has the tattoos to prove it.

Jason says he became a professional thief at age 16, stealing cars for a Phoenix chop shop. His first arrests for auto theft were no big deal. "I think the system's too lenient on these kids," says his mother, who believes her son would have benefited if he'd been locked up early on. "He's 33. From the age of 12, we're looking at 20 years of this going on. He always thought he could beat the system. Nothing was serious to him. They keep giving them slaps on the hand, slaps on the hand. They always want to put you in counseling, but that was a big joke to him."

By the time Jason earned his GED while in juvenile detention, he was on his own. His mom threw him out of the house when he was 14 after finding drugs in his bedroom. "We caught him several times stealing our car -- get up in the middle of the night and going out, he's gone, the car's gone," his mother recalls. "You can't live like that."

Jason and his mother had plenty of time to talk during the 10-hour ride home when he was released from prison in Colorado after doing time for burglary. "I really, honestly, thought he was ready to change his life around," she recalls. "He talked about how you're not just stealing a car. You're actually stealing transportation from somebody who has a job. You're stealing transportation from somebody who may have to take his kids to the emergency room. You're stealing people's livelihoods, their source of income. He was the one who talked about it. I was just agreeing."  

Within a few years, Jason was living in Oregon and stealing cars again. He wasn't always smart. He drove a stolen pickup for several months -- long enough to get insurance -- before the owner spotted it and called police. He moved back to Phoenix shortly afterward, with a will-not-extradite warrant pending. Again, he screwed up by selling a stolen motorcycle to someone who knew where he lived and sang when the cops pulled him over: Go to Jason's house -- he steals cars.

Detective McNulty staked out Jason's home in October 2000 and caught him in a pickup with a license plate from another truck and the VIN numbers removed. The case looked good, but Jason had a bill of sale from a salvage yard that had traded him the truck and $200 for an ATV. Jason walked while McNulty checked his story, which took about a month. The truck, it turned out, hadn't been stolen. But the ATV was hot. The encounter with McNulty didn't slow Jason down. A month after he was arrested at gunpoint, he had a run-in with Phoenix police, who arrested him after he fled from a fistfight in another stolen pickup. He had a bag full of burglary tools, but he made bail and was soon back on the street.

In the end, a competing chop shop brought Jason down before the cops could.

With two investigations pending against him, Jason was shot through the groin at his house by two men who sped away in a white car. They were after a repo truck that could lift a car up and haul it away -- like Jason, they were in the car-stealing business, and the rig was a valuable tool. The truck, which was stolen in the first place, had been stolen again, and the men thought Jason was responsible. That one theft ring would be familiar with another doesn't strike Jason as odd.

"You just get to know people," he explains. "It wasn't me. They eventually found out who stole their repo truck. After everything happened, those people who went to my house and shot me, they actually went to my people and apologized." They couldn't talk to Jason directly. Police took him straight from the hospital to a cell after finding stolen vehicles parked around his mobile home.

A suspect fingered by Jason's girlfriend was never charged with the shooting. He is, however, a prolific car thief. At 17, he led police on a chase the wrong way down Washington Street in a stolen car, eventually crashing into a DPS cruiser. It was the ninth time he'd gotten into trouble as a juvenile, but he was released after one day in jail and eventually given probation and three months in custody. Two years ago, he ran from police in a stolen Mustang, which he crashed into a ditch. Five months later, he stole another car whose owner had left the engine running outside a convenience store. He's now serving five years for auto theft.

The law dealt more seriously with Jason. With two prior felony convictions, three arrests in as many months and a stolen pickup, two stolen motorcycles and a stolen trailer sitting in his yard when the ambulance arrived, he was cooked.

Three years later, the case doesn't stand out for McNulty, who can't immediately recall Jason's name. Aside from the stiff sentence he received, Jason is just like every other meth-addled car thief, so caught up in the life that the madness doesn't sink in until the cuffs go on. Storing stolen vehicles at your house? Stealing an ATV, then trading it, with your name on the bill of sale so there's no doubt you're the guy?

McNulty's reaction: "What a mope!"

The detective says this as he cruises through $30-a-night motel parking lots, looking for more Jasons, entering plate numbers into a computer that spits out complete histories -- where and when a car has been sold, who owns it and, most important, whether it is stolen.

Some cars get more attention than others. He spends five minutes checking out a Mustang with a five-liter motor, the type coveted by street racers who might be sophisticated enough to switch VINs with a less powerful model that isn't hot. He drives past a late-model hatchback, then a Porsche, without reaching for the keyboard. "I've done these guys before -- you know you've been doing this too long when you start recognizing 'em," he says.

After a fruitless morning, McNulty is ready to give up when Glendale officers hunting at apartment complexes radio for help. They've spotted a stolen Honda. By the time McNulty reaches the scene 20 minutes later, officers have found two more hot vehicles. One, a brand-new Nissan Altima with a plate fresh from the dealership, wasn't there when police first showed up to search the parking lot, but it's sitting on the street now, just outside the complex entrance.  

Officers place spikes around the tires of all three cars -- they don't want any chases -- and move into position. McNulty parks a half-block from the Nissan, hiding himself with a sun shade placed across the windshield, with just enough space left on the driver's side so he can keep an eye on the car.

Twenty minutes later, a man and a woman approach the Nissan. They're surrounded at gunpoint as they open the doors. Police find a glass pipe and a gram of methamphetamine in the woman's purse, along with a check and social security and Visa cards that were stolen in a series of smash-and-grab car burglaries last spring. A quarter-gram of crank falls to the ground as police frisk the man. There's an ounce of pot on the front passenger seat and three pounds of weed in the back, stashed inside a cardboard box and a child's backpack decorated with cartoon flowers. In the trunk, police find 16 cell phones and a dent puller.

Two weeks after the arrests, the victim still hasn't returned calls from police. The woman, who says she's having an affair with the owner, has the key, but she can't come up with her lover's phone number or address.

The Nissan was reported stolen in Phoenix, where police take reports by telephone, a practice cops admit isn't the best. "The theft report is two sentences, basically, `My car is gone. I don't know who took it,'" McNulty says. "A car being stolen with the keys in it, you've got to wonder what happened, especially with a real sparse theft report. Are you all of a sudden upside-down in payments?"

This could be a case of fraud, which police estimate accounts for as much as 15 percent of reported car thefts. For now, the woman will be charged with car theft, as will her companion, who confesses he's been driving one of the other stolen cars police found.

In the workaday world of auto theft, this qualifies as a significant bust. Besides vehicle theft, McNulty foresees charges of identity theft, car burglary and drug possession with intent to distribute.

"Jackpot," he says.

Detective McNulty celebrates street-level busts, but he isn't particularly concerned about Mark Fisher, owner of Car Master Keys in Mesa.

"I'm ass-deep in car theft," the detective says. "I don't need to go looking for bullshit." Anyone with a file and time to burn can turn a regular key into a master by honing it down just thin enough to trick the tumblers inside a lock. "You're tweaking, you're up for three days, you've got to do something with your hands," he says, shrugging.

McNulty might not be alarmed, but other cops are. Sergeant Dave Mauser of Mesa PD's auto theft unit says he's fielded calls from cops across the country. "Three or four agencies from back East have contacted me and asked about it," Mauser says. "It is a concern of the police because the wrong element could be using the keys."

Some local police say master keys have become the tool of choice for car thieves. "Now, it's rare that we get a broken window," says Sergeant Rick Calkins of the Phoenix Police Department, who's spent countless hours on rooftops watching large parking lots with high theft rates. "The only way I can tell up there on the roof is basically their behavior walking through the lot, not heading straight into the open business or straight to their car. When they get to the car, their hand and arm motion is just a little bit different than your normal stick the key in and turn it."

Car manufacturers make it all possible. Encrypting ignition systems electronically so that only the right key will work costs less than an average car alarm, but carmakers would rather sell parts to repair cracked steering columns than install effective locks. Chryslers are notoriously easy, and lives, not just cars, are at stake. St. Louis police last year complained directly to the company after teenagers driving stolen Chryslers were involved in five fatal collisions in less than six months. But Chrysler doesn't seem to give a damn.

The company doesn't plan on making encrypted ignitions standard equipment until 2007. "In a lot of rural areas, people leave their keys in the ignition," explains Cole Quinnell, company spokesman. "The person who does that doesn't want to pay an extra $200 for technology that they're obviously not going to use."  

That's good news for folks like Fisher. His Web site is a veritable one-stop shop for a would-be car thief. In addition to keys, he offers an electronic gizmo for disabling car alarms. Simply press the button and wait for the chirp that signals that the alarm's code has been cracked. He accepts PayPal, money orders -- even cash sent in the mail -- but he won't sell to Arizona residents, who must rely on friends in other states to get the goods. For no extra charge, along with the magic Chrysler key, Fisher suggests several ways to use the product, including one that "may damage the tumblers, but works very fast."

Fisher remains in business despite a state law passed last year that classifies master keys as burglary tools and makes their sale and possession a felony. But he won't be arrested anytime soon. Susan Luder, a Maricopa County prosecutor who specializes in auto theft, explains that a disclaimer on Fisher's Web site gets him off the hook. By clicking on the "I Agree" box, buyers promise that they're locksmiths, car dealers, cops or auto repossessors, not thieves, and that they won't use Fisher's products for illegal purposes.

In short, it's the honor system.

E-mail, or call 602-407-1715.

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