Postman robbery leads to muscle car theft arrests

DETROIT – Thieves use cloned key chains 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 theft ring after a January robbery by a U.S. postal worker who led authorities to link several men to brutal car thefts in the Detroit area, long home to the nation’s largest automakers. including Dodge, which is now owned by the international conglomerate Stellantis.

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

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

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

Instead of stealing them off the street, they chase them straight from dealers and assembly plants.

This year, about half a dozen vehicles—mostly Dodge Ram TRX pickups—were taken off a piece outside a Macomb County assembly plant.

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

Thieves have targeted Dodges using portable electronic “pro pads” — a locksmith that can clone keys by plugging them into interior gates in the vehicles, according to the federal Ohio case complaint.

Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles when they detained Devin Rice on Jan. 31 after a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, was robbed at gunpoint with a mailbox key. 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 by federal court in Ohio in June. 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’s attorney declined to comment. The AP left email and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

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

Videos posted on social media show how the high-power vehicles outrun and evaded police.

A judge stated in an arrest warrant that “Benjamin drove a $95,000 $95,000 Dodge Challenger at 120 mph along Ohio’s State Route 2 on a Sunday night in February.”

“In the end, it took spike strips to remind Benjamin that the law required him to follow the orders of the police,” the judge wrote.

About two years ago, in Ohio’s Ottawa County, police began noticing the vehicles firing along state Route 2. The sheriff’s office received calls about reckless driving, said Captain Aaron Leist.

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

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

“We started (Stellantis) in early 2022,” he said. “They would call us and tell us, ‘We have these cars missing.’

A Stellantis spokeswoman declined to comment.

Additional security measures, such as concrete barriers, have been put in place on some lots, according to law enforcement officers.

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

“I think they were able to find keys in a desk drawer and use 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 had crashed into a brick wall while fleeing. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, 2021 Dodge Ram TRX and a 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later recovered.

The authorities arrested four people. They would not have stolen the vehicles, but paid $5,000 for them.

“In the Detroit area, they sell them for about $3,500,” Hanna said. “Once they have that money in their pockets, 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 dealership came up with an “old school” solution: parking boots.

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

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