Postal worker holdups lead to muscle car theft arrests

DETROIT — 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 sell them for tens of thousands of dollars less than they’re worth, according to authorities and court records.

For an Ohio-based heist, it all unraveled after a U.S. Postal worker’s holdup in January led authorities to link several men to brazen car thefts in the Detroit area, long 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 pickups worth $50,000 to $1[ads1]00,000 were showing up in Ohio, Indianapolis and East Coast shipping ports after being sold on the street for $3,500 to $15,000, according to a criminal complaint.

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

“If a patrol car gets hold of them, they don’t stop, and they are faster than patrol cars. They drive 150 km/h all day, he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they drive them straight from dealerships and assembly plants.

Just this year, about a half-dozen vehicles — primarily Dodge Ram TRX pickups — were taken from a location outside a Macomb County assembly plant.

After security measures were stepped up at some Dodge vehicle lots, more than a dozen 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup trucks were removed from a facility 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.

Thieves have been targeting Dodges using hand-held electronic “pro-pads” — a locksmith tool that can clone keys by connecting to interior doors in the vehicles, according to the federal complaint in the Ohio case.

Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles when they stopped Devin Rice on Jan. 31 after a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, was robbed at gunpoint of a mailbox key. But court documents show that a search of his car and then his home turned up not only stolen mail, counterfeit checks and credit and debit cards, but also a Ram pickup truck, a Range Rover SUV and a Dodge with a Hellcat engine — all stolen.

Rice and others were indicted 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 comment. The AP left email and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

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

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

A judge stated in a detention order that “Benjamin was driving a 2022 Dodge Challenger valued at $95,000 at 120 mph down Ohio State Route 2 on a Sunday evening in February.”

“The spike strips ultimately became necessary to remind Benjamin that the law required him to follow police orders,” the judge wrote.

About two years ago, police in Ottawa County, Ohio, started noticing the vehicles exploding along state Route 2. The sheriff’s office was getting calls about reckless driving, Capt. Aaron Leist said.

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

Investigators determined the vehicles were mostly stolen in 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 would call us and tell us ‘We’ve missed these cars’.”

A spokeswoman for Stellantis declined to comment.

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

Last fall, a dealer’s showroom northwest of Detroit was broken into. Someone drove a Ram pickup through the building’s glass wall 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 some keys in a desk drawer and used them,” he added.

Police tracked one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT valued at 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 were not believed to have stolen the vehicles, but to have paid $5,000 for one.

“In the Detroit area, they sell them for $3,500,” Hanna said. “When they get the money in their pocket, they go out and steal another one.”

For dealers and their insurance companies, the costs are high. Even reclaimed vehicles cannot be sold for what they were once worth.

Schneider said his dealer came up with an “old school” solution: parking shoes.

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

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