Dude Where's My Car?

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 CarMasterKeys.com, 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 CarMasterKeys.com, 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.

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Bruce Rushton