Postman heist leads to muscle car theft ring arrests

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

For an Ohio-based theft ring, it all came crashing down after a January robbery of a US postal worker led authorities to connect several men to brazen car thefts in the Detroit area, which has long been 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 pickup trucks worth $50,000 to $100,000 were arriving at shipping ports in Ohio, Indianapolis and the East Coast after sold on the street for $3,500 to $15,000, according to a criminal complaint.

Detroit-area thieves primarily prey on Dodge vehicles with Hellcat engines, including Chargers and Challengers — “the fastest,” Sgt. says Jerry Hanna of the Macomb Auto Theft Squad.

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

Instead of stealing them from the streets, they hunt them directly from dealerships and assembly plants.

This year alone, about half a dozen vehicles — mostly Dodge Ram TRX pickups — have been recovered from outside a Macomb County assembly plant.

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

According to the federal complaint in the Ohio case, thieves targeted Dodges using portable electronic “pro pads” — a locksmith tool that can clone keys by plugging into the vehicles’ interior ports.

Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles when they arrested Devin Rice on January 31 after a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside of Cleveland, had his car key stolen at gunpoint. mailbox. But court records show a search of his car, 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 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’ attorney declined to comment. The AP left emails and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

Harris told the FBI that he and Jones had contact via Instagram with people in the Detroit area to obtain stolen vehicles, according to the complaint. Harris said these thieves were “also selling to buyers in other areas, including Chicago and Indianapolis,” the complaint states.

Videos posted on social media show how high-powered vehicles overtook and evaded police.

A judge said in a detention order that “Benjamin drove a $95,000 2022 Dodge Challenger at 120 mph on State Route 2 in Ohio on a Sunday night in February.”

“Spike strips were eventually needed 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 exploding vehicles along State Highway 2. The sheriff’s office received calls for reckless driving, said Captain Aaron Leist.

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

Investigators have learned that the vehicles were mostly stolen from 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 were calling us and saying, ‘We have these missing cars.'”

A Stellantis spokeswoman declined to comment.

Additional security measures on some lots have included concrete barriers, according to law enforcement.

Then last fall, a dealership’s showroom in northwest Detroit was robbed. Someone drove a Ram pickup truck through the building’s glass wall and “every other car followed suit,” said Jeff Schneider, general manager of Szott Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Highland Township.

“I think they may have 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 suburb northwest of Detroit. The driver had crashed into a brick wall while fleeing. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, 2021 Dodge Ram TRX and 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later recovered.

Authorities arrested four people. They are not believed to have stolen the vehicles, but paid $5,000 for one.

“In the Detroit area they sell them for around $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 cost is high. Even salvaged vehicles cannot be sold for what they were once worth.

Schneider said his dealership came up with an “old-fashioned” solution: parking boots.

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

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