Thieves use cloned key chains to steal muscle cars directly from dealers in Michigan, then sell them for tens of thousands of dollars less than their out-of-state value.
Everything came crashing down for an Ohio-based robbery ring after a U.S. postal worker raided authorities in January to link several men to brutal car thefts in the Detroit area.
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 metro Detroit went after Dodge vehicles with Hellcat engines, including Chargers and Challengers – “the fast”, Sgt. Jerry Hanna of the Macomb Auto Theft Squad said. Dodge’s parent company, Stellantis, announced earlier this year that itto make way for electric versions.
Muscle cars such as the Charger and Challenger represent a unique style of high-performance vehicles that were popularized and marketed by American automakers in the 1950s for their powerful engines and sporty design..
Tools for thieves
Muscle cars are typically two-door vehicles with lightweight bodies designed to make the car go fast. American interest in muscle cars increased in the 1960s with the popularity of drag racing and as more customers bought cars such as the Pontiac GTO, Ford Mustang and Plymouth Road Runner.
Thieves use “pro-pads” — a locksmith who can clone keys by plugging them into interior gates in the vehicles, according to the federal complaint in the Ohio case.
“If a patrol car catches them, they don’t stop and they are faster than patrol cars,” Hanna said. “They’re 150 mph all day.”
About half a dozen vehicles were stolen from parking lots in metropolitan Detroit this year. In September alone, more than a dozen Ford Mustangs were stolen from the automaker’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, southeast of Detroit.
Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles in January when they detained Devin Rice 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 Rice’s car and then his house yielded the keys to a Ram pickup, a Range Rover SUV, and a Dodge with a Hellcat engine—all stolen.
Rice and other defendants were charged in 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.
Ohio authorities first got wind of the stolen vehicles two years ago amid a surge in reckless driving in Ottawa County. After investigating the incidents, Ohio investigators found that the vehicles were mostly stolen in the Detroit area and taken to Cleveland. Some were also destined for Memphis, Tennessee, said Captain Aaron Leist of the Ohio Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department.
“We started (Stellantis) in early 2022,” he said. “They would call us and tell us, ‘We have these cars missing.'”
For dealers and their insurance companies, the costs are high. Even restored vehicles cannot be sold for what they were once worth. Some dealers have added extra security measures — including concrete barriers — to deter thieves.
Jeff Schneider, general manager at Szott Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Highland Township, Michigan, said his dealership uses an “old school” method: parking boots.
“It’s a deterrent that works amazingly,” he said. “We’ve put on all Hellcat’s boots.”