Postal worker holdup leads to muscle car theft ring arrests

DETROIT (AP) — Thieves are using cloned keychains to steal Dodge muscle cars and other high-performance vehicles direct from dealers and even automakers in Michigan, who then sell them for tens of thousands of dollars under their worth, according to government and court records.

It all came crashing down for an Ohio-based theft ring after a January ambush on a US Postal worker led authorities to link several men to brazen car theft in the Detroit area, long home to the country’s biggest automakers including Dodge, is now owned by international conglomerate Stellantis.

Investigators then found that $50,000 to $100,000 worth of new Chargers, Challengers, Durangos and Ram pickups were turning up at Ohio, Indianapolis and East Cost shipping ports after selling on the street for $3,500 to $15,000, according to a criminal complaint US dollars had been sold.

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

“If a squad car catches them, they don’t stop and they’re faster than squad cars. They’re 150 mph all day,” he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they drive them right off dealers’ and assembly plants’ lots.

This year alone, about a half-dozen vehicles — mostly Dodge Ram TRX pickups — have been picked up from a lot outside of a Macomb County assembly plant.

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After security measures were tightened at some properties with Dodge vehicles, more than a dozen 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickups were stolen from a plant lot in suburban Dearborn in June. More than a dozen Ford Mustangs were stolen from the automaker’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, southeast of Detroit, in early September.

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

Authorities were not looking for stolen vehicles when they stopped Devin Rice on Jan. 31 after a mailbox key was stolen at gunpoint from a postal worker in Shaker Heights, outside of Cleveland. But court records show that a search of his car and then his home turned up not only stolen mail, forged checks and credit and debit cards, but also a Ram pickup, a Range Rover SUV and a Hellcat-engined Dodge — all stolen.

Rice and others were indicted in federal court in Ohio in June. Jaylen Harris, Lavelle Jones and Hakim Benjamin face charges of 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 email and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

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Harris told the FBI that he and Jones had been in contact with people in the Detroit area to obtain stolen vehicles, according to the complaint via Instagram. Harris said these thieves “also sold to buyers in other areas, including Chicago and Indianapolis,” according to the complaint.

Videos posted on social media show the powerful vehicles escaping and dodging the police.

A judge stated in a warrant that “Benjamin was driving a $95,000 2022 Dodge Challenger at 120 miles per hour on Ohio’s State Route 2 on a Sunday night in February.”

“Spike Strips were ultimately needed to remind Benjamin that the law required him to obey orders from the police,” the judge wrote.

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

“These cars go 140-150 miles an hour. All have the Hellcat engines. We had many jobs. We didn’t catch them all,” he said.

Investigators learned that the vehicles were mostly stolen in the Detroit area and taken to Cleveland. Some were also destined for Memphis, Tenn., Leist said.

“We started working with (Stellantis) in early 2022,” he said. “They called us and said, ‘We missed those cars.'”

A Stellantis spokeswoman declined to comment.

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Additional security measures at some properties included concrete barriers, according to law enforcement.

Then, last fall, the showroom of a car dealership northwest of Detroit was broken into. Someone drove a Ram pickup through the building’s glass wall and “all the other cars followed,” said Jeff Schneider, general manager at Szott Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Highland Township.

“I think they were able to find and use some keys in a desk drawer,” he added.

Police tracked one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT worth about $100,000, to a suburb northwest of Detroit. The driver had hit a wall while trying to escape. A 2021 Dodge Durango GT, a 2021 Dodge Ram TRX and a 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT were later recovered.

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

“In the Detroit area, they sell them for about $3,500,” Hanna said. “As soon as they have the money in their pockets, they go and steal another one.”

For dealers and their insurance companies, the costs are high. Even salvaged vehicles can no longer 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 all put Hellcats boots on.”


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