Postal worker heist leads to arrests in heavy-duty auto theft ring

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

For a ring of thieves based in Ohio, everything came crashing down after a robbery of a US postal worker in January led authorities to link several men to brazen carjackings in the Detroit area, home long owned by the nation’s largest automakers, including Dodge, which is now owned by the international conglomerate Stellantis.

Investigators then discovered that new Chargers, Challengers, Durangos and Ram trucks worth $50,000 to $100,000 were showing up at shipping ports in Ohio, Indianapolis and the East Coast after being sold on the street for $3,500 to $100,000. 15,000, according to a criminal complaint.

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

“If they get caught by a patrol car, they don’t stop and they are faster than the patrol cars. It’s 150 mph all day,” he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they pull them straight from dealership lots and assembly plants.

This year alone, about a half-dozen vehicles, mainly Dodge Ram TRX trucks, were stolen from a lot outside an assembly plant in Macomb County.

After security measures were stepped up at some lots with Dodge vehicles, more than a dozen 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickups were stolen from a plant 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.

Thieves have targeted Dodges using handheld electronic “pro pads,” a locksmith tool that can clone keys by plugging into interior ports on vehicles, according to the federal complaint in the Ohio case.

Authorities weren’t looking for stolen vehicles when they arrested Devin Rice on Jan. 31 after a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, had a mailbox key stolen at gunpoint. But court records show that a search of his car and then his home found not only stolen mail, fake checks and credit and debit cards, but also a Ram pickup, a Range Rover SUV and a Hellcat-powered Dodge, 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 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 been in contact via Instagram with people in the Detroit area to obtain stolen vehicles, according to the complaint. Harris said those thieves “were also selling to buyers in other areas, including Chicago and Indianapolis,” the complaint says.

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

A judge stated in an arrest warrant that “Benjamin drove a 2022 Dodge Challenger valued at $95,000 at 120 mph down Ohio State Route 2 on a Sunday afternoon in February.”

“Eventually spike strips were needed to remind Benjamin that he was required by law to comply with police orders,” the judge wrote.

About two years ago, police in Ohio’s Ottawa County began noticing vehicles flying along State Route 2. The sheriff’s office received calls about reckless driving, Capt. Aaron Leist said.

“These cars go 140 to 150 mph. They all have the Hellcat engines. We had many chases. We didn’t catch all of them,” he said.

Investigators learned that most of the vehicles were being 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 called us and told us ‘We are missing these cars.'”

A Stellantis spokeswoman declined to comment.

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

Then, last fall, they raided a dealership’s showroom northwest of Detroit. Someone drove a Ram truck through the building’s glass wall and “every other car did the same thing,” said Jeff Schneider, general manager of 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 traced one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT valued at about $100,000, to a northwest Detroit suburb. The driver had crashed into a brick wall as he fled. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, a 2021 Dodge Ram TRX and a 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later recovered.

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

“In the Detroit area they are selling them for $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 school” solution: parking boots.

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

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