The stolen red Volkswagen was barreling down Virginia Avenue SE destined for a broadside collision with the battered blue Plymouth driven by D.C. police officer Ray Miley.
Miley, pausing momentarily to advise the reporter riding with him to get out, leaped from his car, raced out to stop the oncoming traffic, then stood near his car, pulled his revolver from the holster behind his back and waved for the car to stop.
The driver of the compact stationwagon swerved around Miley's car and headed straight for the plainsclothes officer. Miley fired once at the oncoming driver, missed. The red car slowed down briefly and then sped on to an expressway ramp. Miley raced back to his car and, joined by four other police vehicles, stopped the alleged auto thieves half a mile away.
"Those guys tried to kill me," said Miley, pacing nervously back and forth and scowling as the two suspects were locked in a paddy wagon. "They tried to run me down."
For Miley, one of six crack auto intercept officers operating in the police district that includes Capital Hill, Shaw, and downtown, this was a dramatic arrest. The two latest arrests brought to eight the number of collars he has made so far this month on stolen auto charges.
Cars have been stolen ever since there have been cars to steal, but in Washington, auto thefts have increased by 15 percent during the third quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year.
More than 3,400 cars were stolen in Washington last year, and nearly 700 of them were stolen in the 1st District -- nearly double the number of thefts in any of the city's six other police districts.
"If you park your car in the 1st District, you double your chances of having it stolen," says Miley. "But," he added proudly, "you also double your chances of getting it back." That's because not only do Washington police recover stolen autos at a rate well above the national average, but the auto recovery squad in Miley's district is the best in the city.
The average recovery rate for stolen autos across the country is about 55 percent.In the District, it is nearly 84 percent, according to Sgt. William Miller, a 19-year veteran of the central auto squad and the creator of the 1st District squad where Miley works.
"The 1-D auto squad plus our accurate computer work here account for that high recovery figure," said Miller. "Those guys are very good. And they have a good setup. In an auto squad you need two elements: the investigators to follow up on stolen car reports and the people actually on the street recovering cars. Only the 1st District has that combination."
Catching the car thief is a full-time pursuit for this squad. The long-term members have become experts on car models and yearly design changes. They play a form of car trivia with the newest squad member, Clinton Bivens. t
"Okay, we've got a '63 Pontiac Lemans out there today," says Miley as he looks over the new list of stolen autos for the day. He glances over at his partner who has one year with the squad. Bivens nods his head.
"Bivens, there is no '63 Lemans. That was in '64. What this is supposed to say is a '63 Tempest," he says smugly.
"This job is a lot harder than I thought it would be," said the chastised Bivens. "I thought anyone could find a stolen car. It takes two to three years just to learn what you're looking for."
The squad is divided into three two-member teams, each of which has its own system for keeping track of stolen cars.
Lawrence Thomas and his partner John Racca start each shift by reading aloud to each other the teletype list of cars taken in the last 24 hours. Then Racca gets out his hand-made "hot-sheet" and carefully pencils in the new license tags. Because of financial shortages in the police department, Racca makes up his own sheet using the back of old "emergency, no parking" signs. He divides it into 99 squares -- the maximum number of two-digit variations at the end of a tag number.
"This gives us a quick reference sheet to check tags fast. When you're on the street, you only have a moment to check a tag as a car passes you the other way," said Racca, who that day was wearing his favorite patched jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Thomas, his partner of three years, was wearing grey suit pants, a muted grey-and-white plaid shirt with a tie, and a burgundy leather jacket.
It is apparent that this visually mismatched team has worked together on the streets for a long time. They speak as a team, in a sort of shorthand.
"We always drive along Florida Avenue . . ." Racca begins.
". . . because the thieves mostly follow the bus routes," finishes Thomas.
Racca: "And we always check the drug areas."
Thomas: ". . . because a lot of these thieves are drug addicts."
While discussing who shot J.R., the health of their children, Sunday's football game and the upcoming vacations they plan to take together with their families, the two men are always listening to the radio. Sentences hang suspended while they listen intently to a radio flash on yet another stolen car. A note is made of the model and tag and then the sentence is finished.
As seen from the back of the unmarked cruiser, the two heads, one with long straight brown hair, the other with short, tightly curled black hair, suddenly turn in unison as a car passes.
"Is that . . . " begins Thomas.
"May be," says Racca, his voice rising with enthusiasm.
"It's a 78," Thomas identifies the car.
"Oh. What we've got is an '80," says Racca.
And the hunt goes on, for eight hours and about 60 miles of almost continual driving along the bus routes and back alleys.
On Wednesday, at 11th and S streets NW, Thomas suddenly leaned forward and pointed at a tan Plymouth Duster in the block ahead. "Is that . . ." he began. "Yes, we've got one," said Racca his eyes glowing and his voice rising slightly.
They started to follow the car, keeping about a half block behind.
"A girl is driving," said Thomas. "A girl can't outrun us."
The car turned north on 7th Street and then east onto the 600 block of T Street, a grimy street of double-parked cars and sidewalks crowded with men who talk in groups or pace along the curb trying to catch the eye of the drivers creeping by in search of familiar faces.
As the Duster inches along the street Racca calls for backup support from marked police cruisers in the area.
Suddenly, the cruisers arrive from the east and the west. The Duster has no way to get around the instant blockade. Thomas and Racca get out of their car and walk to the Duster. They ask for drivers license and registration.
"I don't have the registration," said the slender woman sitting at the wheel of the car. "It's my uncle's car. He loaned it to me. Maybe I kept it too long," she says as she and her passenger are driven back to the police station for a check on her story.
Her "uncle" told police he had never heard of her. All he knew was that his car was gone and he wanted it back. She was arrested and charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, a felony in the District.
According to squad members, women driving stolen cars usually say it belongs to a relative.Men, on the other hand, say it belongs to a friend. Thomas calls this the "Tyrone defense."
"They say Tyrone gave it to me. And I say 'Tyrone who?' and they say they don't know his last name. Then I say 'How are you going to give it back to him?' and they say when I see him at 14th and U," said the eight-year veteran of the auto intercept squad.
The low-key arrest is typical of the way the auto squad works, said Thomas.
"I don't want to chase no cars. We used to do that when we first started, but that is dangerous stuff. In a place like D.C., you could wipe out a hundred people with high-speed chases," he said. "Now we just lay back and call in the cruisers. Then we just walk up to the car and say 'hello.' Much nicer that way."