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The controversial GPS device that helped police catch Carlesha Freeland-Gaither’s alleged abductor

A frame from a video that reportedly showed Carlesha Freeland-Gaither’s abduction. (Philadelphia Police Department via European Pressphoto Agency)
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Local and federal law enforcement officials announced Wednesday that they had rescued a nursing assistant whose violent abduction in Philadelphia was caught on surveillance video. And as police credit that video for its role in finding Carlesha Freeland-Gaither, 22, and her alleged abductor, Delvin Barnes, another sort of surveillance technology also helped lead officials to the suspect and the victim: a GPS device, planted in Barnes’s car by the dealership that sold him the vehicle.

Barnes, 37, was arrested in Maryland on Wednesday, three days after Freeland-Gaither was abducted on a Philadelphia street. Freeland-Gaither was with Barnes at the time of his capture in Jessup and was in reasonably good condition, authorities said at a news conference.

Officials began to zero in on their location after the victim’s credit card was used near the Maryland-Delaware border.

But a major break in the case came from law enforcement in Virginia, where police already were investigating Barnes in a different case. The images of the suspect in the Philadelphia abduction indicated that it might be him.

Barnes has a long criminal history and was wanted in Virginia as a suspect in an abduction there.

Investigators began tracking the movements of his car — a gray Ford Taurus — through the GPS device. The dealership installed it because of Barnes’s poor credit at the time of purchase.

Two detectives working together in neighboring Virginia counties guessed that the car might have such a device after they “noticed a Virginia inspection sticker on the front windshield and a decal from a car dealership in the Richmond area,”as The Post reported Thursday night. The detectives were aware that the dealership placed GPS devices in some of the vehicles it sold.

Capt. Jayson Crawley of the Charles City County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff’s Lt. J.J. McLaughlin III of the New Kent County Sheriff’s Office asked the dealership to activate the device on Wednesday, they told The Post.

The dealership complied, and Barnes’s car was located that day in Jessup.

Over the past few years, car dealerships — especially those catering to lower-income customers and those with poor credit — have placed GPS devices in the cars they sell, sometimes without the knowledge of the buyer. The practice is controversial.

The devices are generally “designed to help the repo man find your car if you stop paying,” the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2013. The devices stay on the car until the loan is paid off.

“They don’t want the customer to know that if they don’t pay, they can come find it,” Duane Overholt, a consumer advocate who runs the Web site, told the Times.

In the case of one Florida dealership, customers whose cars were equipped with tracking devices were invited in for a “safety check” after they finished paying, at which time the device was covertly removed, the Times reported.

It’s not clear whether Barnes knew about the device in his car.

The GPS devices, which have been the subject of several lawsuits, have gotten even more high-tech, as the New York Times reported in September. Some dealerships can even use them to disable a car from starting until a payment is made.

From the Times report:

“The thermometer showed a 103.5-degree fever, and her 10-year-old’s asthma was flaring up. Mary Bolender, who lives in Las Vegas, needed to get her daughter to an emergency room, but her 2005 Chrysler van would not start.
The cause was not a mechanical problem — it was her lender.
Ms. Bolender was three days behind on her monthly car payment. Her lender, C.A.G. Acceptance of Mesa, Ariz., remotely activated a device in her car’s dashboard that prevented her car from starting. Before she could get back on the road, she had to pay more than $389, money she did not have that morning in March.”

The Times reported that the devices “have been installed in about two million vehicles” and “are helping feed the subprime boom by enabling more high-risk borrowers to get loans. But there is a big catch. By simply clicking a mouse or tapping a smartphone, lenders retain the ultimate control. Borrowers must stay current with their payments, or lose access to their vehicle.” The devices, according to the Times, are “now used in about one-quarter of subprime auto loans nationwide.”

As the Tampa Bay Times noted in its 2013 report, “car repossessions guided by GPS are so widespread the industry has its own trade group: The Payment Assurance Technology Association. The group has a code of ethics that requires its members to ‘fully define and disclose’ the devices to customers.”

The Maryland-based association calls them “payment assurance devices.”

Privacy and consumer advocates have said they are troubled by the way lenders are using GPS tracking devices in cars, and the New York Times noted that “state and federal authorities are grappling with how to regulate the new technology.”

The vehicle was found on Waterloo Road, just off of Route 1, by a Jessup shopping center that includes a Starbucks, an organic grocery store and other stores. It is across the street from a Maryland State Police barrack.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that law enforcement officials “watching the sedan with the broken windows in the parking lot in Jessup . . . saw two figures in the backseat: a man and a woman they hoped was” Freeland-Gaither.

Then the man climbed into the front seat and tried to pull away. The ATF agents closed in with guns drawn. The man surrendered without a fight.
The terrified woman in the backseat gave her name: Carlesha.
And with that, the three-day ordeal that stretched across state lines and galvanized police and the public came to an end, with Carlesha Freeland-Gaither injured but safe, and a wanted man with a history of violence in custody.

Investigators aren’t aware of a link between Barnes and Freeland-Gaither. Barnes was charged federally on Thursday with kidnapping. He also faces attempted murder and rape charges in Virginia for a separate kidnapping on Oct. 1.

Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

[This story has been updated.]