Police across Michigan battling rash of wheel, tire theft

Brazen thieves swiped the wheels and tires from seven new Explorers and one Expedition, leaving the vehicles on landscaping bricks in the lot at Galesburg Ford near Kalamazoo.

"I was very upset. You feel helpless," dealership owner Bill Dorrance said. "We’ve lost four wheels at a time before, but never on this scale."

The incident illustrates what many law enforcement agencies say is an increasing problem in Michigan — wheel and tire theft. The agencies are teaming up to address the rash of thefts sweeping the state, with more than 40 dealerships hit so far this year and residents waking up to find their cars on blocks.

With people often working in small, organized teams, like a pit crew on a race track, the crime can happen quickly.

"(There are) a lot of variables," including how experienced the thieves are, Michigan State Police First Lt. Scott Woodard said. "If they're good, they can have all fours ties off in two minutes and be gone."   

Officials from at least 30 different law enforcement agencies met two weeks ago at State Police headquarters in Lansing to discuss wheel and tire thefts. They swapped information and tried to piece together possible patterns, Woodard said. Representatives from the FBI and state attorney general's office were at the meeting.

Investigators are looking at whether two arrests — one of a man in Bay County and one of a man in Eaton County — could be connected to other cases.

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, told the Free Press she can't comment on open investigations. A spokesman for the FBI in Detroit, Tim Wiley, did not return a message seeking comment.

Officials say advances in vehicle anti-theft technology have, at least in part, contributed to the increase in stolen wheels. 

"It's far easier to jack up a car and steal the tires and the rims than it is to steal the entire car," said Mark Wagenschutz, executive director of Help Eliminate Auto Thefts (H.E.A.T.).

The ability to sell car parts online and the prevalence of unscrupulous dealers who buy stolen tires are also part of the problem, said Woodard, executive director of Michigan's Automobile Theft Prevention Authority. 

Spike in thefts

Woodard said the increase in rim and tire theft seems to have happened over the past year, especially in metro Detroit.

In Novi, 13 vehicles have been hit since March 1.

"It is certainly something that has increased in frequency throughout southeast Michigan," Novi Assistant Police Chief Jerrod Hart said.

Birmingham police issued a warning to residents last month after two vehicles parked on Suffield Street were found on blocks.

And in Livonia, police investigators say they've noticed an increase in thefts, especially from Ford Fusions, Tauruses and Explorers.

Several car dealerships throughout the state have been victimized in recent weeks.

"We found this is a statewide problem right now at the dealers," Woodard said. "Not only in Michigan, but in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio."

At Galesburg Ford, the bad guys knew what they were looking for: the larger, higher-end rims. Employees discovered the theft the morning of June 22. 

"They took the 20-inch, fancy wheels on the Explorers, and the 22-inch on the Expedition," Dorrance said. "All the 18-inch wheels on the Explorers were left behind."

The stolen tires and rims were worth around $85,000. 

Vehicle navigation systems and airbags have also been targeted.

"Parts of a car are easier to take and easier to resell than the entire car, easier to hide than an entire car," Wagenschutz said.

There is no reliable statewide data on wheel and tire theft. The crime is not always reported to police departments or insurers. Also, police departments sometimes categorize the thefts differently, Woodard said. For instance, if thieves push a vehicle a few blocks from where it was parked to steal the tires, it might be reported and classified as vehicle theft rather than larceny from a vehicle.

Frank Scafidi is director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit based in Illinois that fights insurance fraud and crime. Scafidi is skeptical that there's been an increase, saying wheel theft has been a consistent problem.

"The crime itself occurs pretty frequently. There’s big money in it," Scafidi said.

The problem has been growing so much in Michigan that last year, the state Legislature amended a law in an attempt to curb it.

The law, which requires dealers who buy used vehicle parts to get ID information from sellers and keep various records about the transactions, was expanded to include deals involving tires and rims. Dealers can face up to a year behind bars and a fine of $1,000 for a first offense. 

Woodard said the law is too new for officials to be able to tell whether it has had an impact.  

Recent arrests

Investigators are hoping the arrests of people in separate cases in two different counties — Eaton and Bay — might lead them to other suspects.

On the morning of June 27, police arrested a man at the Candy Ford dealership in Charlotte in Eaton County. Donald Napier, 63, of Lansing, has been charged with larceny from a motor vehicle.

Police patrolling in the area noticed that a vehicle with missing tires had been propped up on one side by a floor jack, according to the police report. Wheel lug nuts had been removed from several other vehicles. Red bricks were laying near them on the ground. 

Officers also found a rented white transit van containing red bricks, several pairs of gloves, lug nuts and a four-way tire wrench. A black bandanna covered its license plate.

The police report says Napier, who was wearing a mask when he was arrested in front of the dealership, told police he was part of a theft ring tied to Detroit. His attorney, Amanda Love, refutes that, saying her client is innocent and never mentioned a theft ring, an assertion she said is backed up by police body camera recordings. Other suspects are believed to have fled the scene.

The vehicles had been parked in a darkened area of the dealership lot.

"They hit the dark side, which is now lit up like a Christmas tree," John Dykstra, a manager at Candy Ford, said.

Details in the Bay County case weren't immediately available.

Parking in a lighted area is one way to help deter tire and wheel theft, Woodard said. Parking in an enclosed garage is ideal.

Wheel locks, which function as a lug nut and require a special tool for installation and removal, and locking wheel boots can also be deterrents.

Crime hits home

Michael Mualem, 50, bought wheel locks after waking up July 2 to find his 2016 Ford Explorer Sport sitting on blocks in his Dearborn driveway.

"It was frustrating. Our neighborhood is so quiet. We had been there for 15 years, and nothing ever happened on our street. ... Everybody was just taken aback by it," he said.

One of the most recent cases of theft at a local business was reported to police last week in Allen Park. A Dodge Challenger Hellcat and 16 wheels were stolen from Roush Industries. Police are looking for two men and a white minivan whose images were captured by security cameras.

Abdullah Alkeilani, 36, Bloomfield Hills, was at work July 24 when the wheels and tires were stolen from his 2017 Dodge Challenger R/T. The car was parked on the sixth floor of a Miller parking garage near the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.  

Garage management told Alkeilani the culprit was caught on camera and identified. Later, a police detective called him and said officers went to the man's house to arrest him, but he fled.

Alkeilani said the detective called again to say it looked like his wheels and tires had been listed for sale on Craigslist. Newly installed, they cost about $3,200.

"He was selling all four for $650,"  Alkeilani said. 

Alkeilani contacted the person who posted the tires. He figured buying them back would be a cheaper option than paying his insurance deductible.

But they had already sold. 

© 2017, Detroit Free Press


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