Postal worker robbery leads to car ring theft arrests

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

It all came crashing down for an Ohio-based robbery gang after a January robbery of a US mailman led authorities to link several men to brutal auto thefts in the Detroit area, long home to the nation’s largest automakers. including Dodge, which is now owned by international conglomerate Stellantis.

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

Thieves in the Detroit area primarily prey on Dodge vehicles with Hellcat engines, including Chargers and Challengers – “the fast”, Sgt. said Jerry Hanna of the Macomb Auto Theft Squad.

“If a patrol car catches them, they don’t stop and they are faster than patrol cars. They’re 150 mph all day,” he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they drive them straight from dealerships and assembly plants.

This year, about half a dozen vehicles — mostly Dodge Ram TRX pickups — were taken from a parking lot outside an assembly plant in Macomb County.

After security measures were tightened on some lots of Dodge vehicles, more than a dozen 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup trucks were swept from a factory lot in June in suburban Dearborn. In early September, more than a dozen Ford Mustangs were stolen from the automaker’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, southeast of Detroit.

Thieves have targeted Dodges by using portable electronic “pro pads” — a locksmith tool that can clone keys by plugging them into interior ports in the vehicles, according to the 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 of Cleveland, was robbed of a mailbox key at gunpoint. But court records show that a search of his car and then his home revealed not only stolen mail, fake checks and 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 June in federal court in Ohio. Jaylen Harris, Lavelle Jones and Hakim Benjamin are charged with conspiracy and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. Rice, Harris and Jones are also charged with mail theft. Their trials are scheduled for next year.

Harris’ attorney declined to comment. The AP dropped emails and phone calls seeking comment from lawyers for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

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

Videos posted to social media show how the high-horsepower vehicles outran the police and evaded the police.

A judge stated in a warrant that “Benjamin was driving a $95,000 Dodge Challenger at 125 mph on Ohio’s State Route 2 on a Sunday evening in February.”

“In the end, it took nail strips 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 the vehicles along State Route 2. The sheriff’s office was getting calls about reckless driving, said Captain Aaron Leist.

“These cars go 140-150 mph. They all have the Hellcat engines. We had many activities. We didn’t catch them all,” he said.

Investigators found that the vehicles were usually stolen in the Detroit area and taken 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 got these cars missing’.”

A Stellantis spokeswoman declined to comment.

According to the police, extra security measures have been put in place at some plots, including concrete barriers.

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

“I think they found some keys in a desk drawer and used them,” he added.

Police tracked one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT worth about $100,000, to a northwest suburb of Detroit. The pilot had crashed into a brick wall during his flight. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, a 2021 Dodge Ram TRX, and a 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later recovered.

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

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

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

Schneider said his dealer came up with an “old school” solution: parking shoes.

“It’s a deterrent that works amazingly,” he said. “We put on all the Hellcats boots.”

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