Policing scrap industry for stolen autos

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Every 45 minutes an automobile is stolen in the City of Boston. That adds up to more than 1,000 cars a month or, as in 1984, approximately 14,500 a year, according to Boston police statistics.

Roughly half the stolen cars are recovered by police. The rest -- more than 7,000 cars -- seem to disappear.

Where do they go? Some are simply repainted and driven out of the state; some are dumped into bodies of water or abandoned in remote areas after the thieves are done with them. A few have been shipped to South America by professional car-theft rings, which sell the cars for two or three times their value in the United States.

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But most of the cars, law-enforcement officials suspect, are driven to ``chop shops'' (illegal garages) in the Boston area, where they are stripped of fenders, doors, tires, and other parts. Later, authorities say, the remains are crushed and then trucked to a giant shredding machine that can rip an automobile into fist-sized bits of scrap metal in minutes.

In effect, the shredder reduces the family car -- a 11/2-ton piece of incriminating evidence to an automobile thief -- into the equivalent of metallic confetti. That usually is enough to turn even the most determined investigator's trail cold.

``We probably have thousands of stolen cars on the books that have already gone through the shredder, but we will never be able to identify them,'' says Boston Detective William Kelley.

The 20-year veteran of the Boston Police Department's 12-man Auto Theft Squad says such shredders are an ``easy and profitable'' way for car thieves to get rid of the evidence. The scrap shredding process yields $25 to $75 per car scrapped, depending on the current price the steel industry is paying for scrap metal.

According to law-enforcement officials, it is conceivable that a car could be stolen late at night in Boston, stripped of its most salable parts in someone's garage or back yard, and fed into an auto shredder early the next morning, perhaps before the vehicle is reported stolen.

The problem of stolen cars disappearing in shredders is nothing new. It was identified as a serious concern during former Gov. Edward J. King's drive against car theft in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. Legislation was drafted to license and monitor scrap-metal processors, but the industry's lobby came out against the bill. It was defeated.

Now, in the midst of another anti-auto-theft drive by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, state and local law-enforcement personnel are again suggesting that licensing and monitoring of auto shredders might help make a significant dent in the problem. The scrap industry disagrees.

Meanwhile, the car-theft rate in Massachusetts remains at roughly twice the US average. Even worse, for the past decade the Bay State has consistently earned the unwanted distinction of being ``the car-theft capital of the United States.'' According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, more cars are stolen a year in Massachusetts (per capita) than in any other state.

In 1983, local insurance companies paid auto-theft claims totaling almost $80 million. Roughly 50,000 cars were stolen in Massachusetts that year -- and 16,000 of them were not covered by theft insurance.

State and local law-enforcement agencies have launched a head-on assault against illegal ``chop shop'' operations, which are believed to be the primary cause of the state's high auto-theft rates. Recent federal legislation requiring car manufacturers by 1986 to begin etching identification numbers on 14 car parts such as fenders and hoods should deal a significant blow to the illegal auto-parts industry. But police and other auto-theft experts say there are other opportunities in areas downstream from the actual stealing and stripping of cars where investigators might work effectively to make it even more difficult for car-theft rings to operate.

Car shredding is one of those downstream areas, they say. There are five auto-shredding machines operating in Massachusetts and roughly 200 of them in service nationwide. Scrap processors are under no official obligation in this state to ensure that all the cars they shred are not stolen, although some say they voluntarily monitor the incoming hulks to prevent the shredding of stolen vehicles. Some states that have had high car-theft rates have licensed shredders.

Scrap-industry officials stress that they view the cars only in terms of raw tonnage. It is not their job, they say, to police whether an auto hulk is the remains of a stolen car or not. ``We don't think we are at the root of the [auto theft] problem,'' says John Spillane, a scrap-industry lobbyist on Beacon Hill. ``The problem is with someone else, not with our industry.''

Dennis Curran, an ex-aide to former Governor King and a member of a recent Justice Department advisory panel on auto theft, does not agree. ``Once you shut off the disposal site, then you create all kinds of problems for the car thieves. They have hot evidence on their hands, and they don't know what to do with it.''

``You have to chip away at all sides of it,'' says Detective Kelley. The veteran auto-theft detective says that if the scrap processors were licensed by the state, an official could be posted at each shredder to find out who shows up with stolen cars. ``It is a lot of work in one respect, but on the other hand it would pay for itself,'' Kelley says, adding, ``That would knock the thief out of the box.''

Others are afraid that it might knock the scrap industry out of the box at the same time.

``It is going to make it that much more difficult to recycle cars, . . .'' says Herschel Cutler, executive director of the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel in Washington. ``Nobody steals a car for its scrap value,'' he says.

Spillane, who successfully fought the scrap licensing measure in the Massachusetts legislature in the early 1980s, says, ``In the real world, licensing scrap-metal processors is just not productive.'' He adds, ``The industry is capital intensive, and banks don't like to do business with people who depend on a license.''

``If you are running a piece of machinery and somebody [from the state Registry] is standing there and says shut it down, that is a loss of productivity,'' says a scrap processor who asked not to be named. ``It hinders your business miserably.''

Bill Boutwell of Aberjona Auto Parts in Woburn, Mass., offers a different view. ``If you were to post Registry or State Police officials at the locations of the shredders, you would see that the `gypsies' [independent, nonlicensed scrap dealers who sometimes take stolen cars to the shredders] would shift automatically to another area,'' he says.

Scrap-industry officials say an estimated 200,000 motorists are driving in the state with expired registrations. They note that the Registry of Motor Vehicles doesn't have the available manpower to police that problem adequately. How, they ask, can Registry officials be expected to take on yet another responsibility, when they apparently can't do the job as it now exists?

Registry officials reply that more staff would be required.

``We are not the problem,'' says Cutler of the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel. ``The problem is the [stolen] auto parts. And until you deal with that, you are not going to solve the problem.'' Scrap-industry officials stress that they do not process stolen vehicles. ``Nobody in this business is going to run the risk of buying questionable merchandise,'' Cutler says.

Spillane adds, ``Every hulk that comes in to us comes in from a registered truck or a registered dealer so we are not dealing with stolen property.'' He says, ``There is no way to get stolen goods to us directly.''

But industry sources say that scrap processors do not require any documentation for cars that have already been crushed in a special machine that flattens cars to about a foot high. Crushed cars are fed directly into the shredder, no questions asked, says Herbert Burr of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

It is only in the case of cars that have not been crushed that scrap processors require proof of ownership such as a copy of the title and registration prior to shredding, according to industry sources.

Burr says that while there are only five shredders in Massachusetts, there are roughly 50 so-called crushers, including several portable crushers that can be moved virtually anywhere. The operations of the crushers -- like those of the shredders -- are not regularly monitored by the state. Illinois and New York require operators of auto shredders to keep detailed records. Burr suggests that both shredding and crushing operations should be monitored by the state, in part by requiring operating licenses. But he adds that extra manpower would be needed to police such operations adequately.

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