On a recent Saturday afternoon, Roy Lampson discovered something that didn’t belong on his property: the carcass of a car. It was the second such discovery the Tacoma resident found on his Rocky Bay land within the last year.
On closer inspection, the retired welder discovered one more thing: The vehicle condition appeared to be thework of a professional. There wasn’t much left of it, either—no engine, no doors, it was stripped clean.
|What you can do
If you suspect illegal activity, call 798-INFO, a centralized county hotline that accepts all complaints about illegal dumping or junk vehicles and forwards them to the appropriate authorities The hotline is part of an effort called Pierce County Responds, a multiagency anti-blight effort.If you find a vehicle that appears dismantled or you suspect criminal activity, you can also report the crime to the county sheriff’s office at 798-4721
“It appeared to me that whoever chopped it knew what they were doing and had experience,” he said.
The vehicle, an ’88 Honda Prelude, was stolen from a Gig Harbor resident, and according to the police report, “it appeared to have been on the property for an extended period of time.”
Sgt. Ross Herberholtz with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Peninsula Detachment said such reports are not uncommon in their service area, which encompasses Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula. “We know they (chop shops) are going on at different places and they are difficult to come across…A lot of times deputies are in pursuit of something else and they stumble into a chop shop,” he said.
Several agencies are working together on the problem, including the sheriff’s office, Washington State Patrol and Pierce County Planning, which enforces permit violations. A code enforcement officer inspecting a property, due to complaints or sightings of wrecked cars, will contact the state patrol if suspicious activity is found, often times triggering further investigation by the Illegal Wrecking Yards unit or the Auto Theft Criminal Investigation Division.
“The majority of the guys we arrest for chop shops and illegal wrecking yards have a criminal history involving methamthetamine and narcotics and distribution,” said Trooper Johnny Alexander of the Washington State Patrol. “It’s easy to conceal in the rural areas.”
Some of the criminals scout malls and other areas for cars, sometimes close to their “operation” but often miles away. Small Hondas and Toyotas are especially popular because they can be stripped “within moments,” but it’s not unusual to see a town car or an SUV involved.
“You can find them in the middle of Puyallup but it’s more convenient to do it in the remote areas like the Peninsula, where it’s easy to store a car,” Dean Fenton, a detective with the WSP’s auto theft criminal investigation division, said. “Parts are either sold, exchanged or reassembled, but many cars are getting harder to steal, that’s why they often stick to Hondas.” Other cars get shipped overseas.
Washington state is fourth in the country in the number of stolen vehicles, with a car being stolen every 15 minutes, according to WSP. Puget Sound area is No. 1 in the state, with more than 70 percent of the statewide auto thefts concentrated in the King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Washington, in fact, has a reverse trend compared to the rest of the country: While national trends show a reduction in auto thefts, they have been on the rise in Washington, and year 2000 had highest number in state history.
“It’s very common for stolen cars to end up in a chop shop, even SUVs and big pickup trucks, but especially small Hondas and Toyotas,” Herberholtz said.
Although taking precautions is not a sure-proof guarantee, you can minimize the chances of having your vehicle stolen by following basic steps like trying to park in well-lit, well-traveled areas and not leaving the keys in the ignition —not even private subdivisions are safe. Special tracking technology can be installed in the car that activates a signal when a car is declared stolen. The information is entered into a national database and the signal can be detected by law enforcement authorities to help them locate the vehicle.
Washington State Patrol also takes aggressive “pro-active” steps including using bait cars that will trap a thief inside until police shows up. With the help of tips from the public, surveillance and information from a task force that includes agencies ranging from county planning to the health department, detectives are trying to crack down auto theft rings and chop shops.
The occasional sighting of stripped cars on the Key Peninsula doesn’t necessarily mean there is a shop set up somewhere out here in the remote woods, but citizens who see suspicious activity are encouraged to report it. Not every tip will lead to a SWAT team swooping the area or a television news report on yet another busted operation, but as Trooper Alexander said, “bad guys don’t always get away…we are very aggressive in trying to put these guys behind bars.”