New technology and old-fashioned police work were a potent combination recently for a Prince George's County police officer who used a high-tech device to find a "chop shop" with more than three dozen cars in Clinton. That led to the arrest this week of a Forestville man on felony theft charges and, police believe, may have cracked a major stolen car ring.
The man whom police arrested, Paul Keith Hayes, 38, of the 2800 block of Xavier Lane in Forestville, was in jail early this week and had not posted a $10,000 bond. He has been charged with two counts of felony theft, although police said other charges are forthcoming. Police said Hayes had a lease on the gated lot on Alexandria Ferry Road.
In all, police said, 44 stolen cars were recovered, including one that was linked to a homicide in the District last year. Police also discovered 32 automobile doors, two motorcycle engines and an exhaust system taken from a Mercedes, said Lt. Sean Carney, commander of the department's special assignments division.
The estimated value of the items -- including the intact cars -- is nearly $524,000, Carney said. A chopped-up vehicle is worth on average 50 percent more than the vehicle itself.
Prince George's leads the region in stolen vehicles -- about 14,000 last year. Law enforcement officials said the discovery in Clinton is a major coup as they step up efforts to reduce the auto theft rate and punish those responsible, said Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.
"The message we want to get out to the residents is you can't come to Prince George's and expect to steal cars and get away with it," he said. "Auto theft is among [Ivey's] top priorities, because it affects so many people. How can anyone really fathom 14,000 stolen cars in one year?"
Last year, the number of stolen autos and carjacked vehicles together surged about 60 percent, Chief Gerald M. Wilson said recently.
Police had already begun a crackdown before the Jan. 11 discovery of the chop shop. The department's Auto Crimes Team, created last fall and responsible for the recovery of stolen vehicles, has arrested more than 60 people, recovered 55 stolen autos and 37 stolen tags, according to the agency's most recent statistics from early December.
Along with the recently discovered chop shop, in the 7800 block of Old Alexandria Ferry Lane, Carney said, comes a newfound appreciation for the LoJack tracking device, a radio frequency-based system that is automatically activated when police are notified of a vehicle theft.
The tracking unit, installed in about 50 of the county's marked patrol cars, picks up the silent signal from cars that have the anti-theft device and leads officers straight to the stolen vehicles, giving them precise directions and information on the make and model.
When the officer on patrol picked up the signal from the Cadillac, he followed it to the lot, which lacked a sign or other contact information. After police tried to contact the owner of the property, Carney said, the officer, Cpl. Emmett Driggers, called in back-up and went into the lot to find the Cadillac.
"He found so much more," Carney said, including vehicles in the process of being disassembled and a trailer filled to the top with doors and other parts.
Police then obtained a search warrant. The next day, Jan. 11, officers descended on the lot and, one by one, removed the vehicles.
Capt. Andy Ellis, spokesman for the department, said LoJack has been responsible for the recovery of 39 stolen vehicles in 2001, made by the system inside the cruisers, and at least 31 last year made by the department's lone helicopter. Total figures for 2002 weren't available early this week.
Police officials said they are exploring their options and hope to expand the LoJack system so that tracking devices are installed on many more cruisers. They did not know early this week what the price tag would be; the cost to consumers who install the device in their own vehicles is about $500.
Police ask that anyone with information about stolen or carjacked vehicles call the department's Crime Solvers at 301-735-1111.