PHOENIX - Unsuspecting people all over our state are unknowingly becoming linked to human smuggling and drug smuggling. It's all because of vehicles they drive and how they park them when they visit the mall, the gym, the movies, and other locations with exposed parking.
“You feel kind of violated,” said Rob Jackson, who said he has had two work trucks stolen in the past few years.
Jackson said someone stole his 2004 Ford F-250 from the parking lot at Lifetime Fitness in Tempe during Memorial Day weekend in 2009.
“I went inside…for a quick workout, about forty-five minutes,” he said.
When he came back outside, his vehicle was gone.
“After you walk through the parking lot once or twice, you kind of get that sick feeling,” he said. “You know your vehicle is gone.”
Jackson said it was only a matter of days before law enforcement officials found his truck, but it was unrecognizable.
The thieves had painted the white, Ford pick-up in camouflage colors. He found food, supplies, and debris throughout the truck.
“We found a make-shift water bottle holder made out of pant-legs, and they used a strap from a blanket or stripped from a pair of pants…to hold the water bottle,” he explained.
“We found food in the back,” he said. “We found toilet paper – just a host of things that would lead you to believe everything back there was for survival.”
The vehicles aren’t being stolen for their parts.
“These vehicles are being stolen to commit other crimes,” said Sgt. J.D. Hough, who leads the Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force.
“I think one of the biggest problems is the pick-ups and the SUVs,” he said.
TARGETED SMUGGLING VEHICLES
According to an AZ Department of Public Safety Criminal Intelligence Analyst, heavy duty pickups are the most commonly targeted vehicles for human and drug smuggling in the Valley, including the following:
F-250 (most commonly targeted)
Smugglers and thieves coordinate their efforts and resources to steal vehicles from the Valley to help supply the needs of smugglers in the desert, near the border.
“I would categorize (this) as an organized theft,” said Hough. “These are organized groups that take orders for vehicles. They know how many they need to get the cargo from point a to point b.”
Sometimes the organizers will assign one person to steal a vehicle, one person to drive it from the Valley to a location in the desert, and a third person to transport the smuggled goods and people, detectives said.
Often times, the thieves target apartment complexes and residences where vehicles are parked in a driveway or an open parking area, an analyst told ABC15.
The thieves take trucks from public places like shopping centers, movie theaters, restaurants, medical plazas, hospitals, golf courses, colleges and training facilities, and industrial business areas.
“They go out and find the vehicle that’s going to suit their needs,” said Hough. “They steal that vehicle and once they’re done with it, they trash it and leave it in the desert.”
Arizona Department of Public Safety analysts are currently tracking vehicle thefts and recoveries linked directly to smuggling crimes, but the ABC15 Investigators obtained overall theft data from several Valley cities to show you the hotspots.
AUTO THEFT NUMBERS DECLINED
According to the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, FBI statistics revealed motor vehicle thefts went down nationwide by more than 17 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.
In Arizona, auto theft decreased by 30 percent from 2008. According to an AATA September press release, “bait cars, proactive law enforcement strategies, and multi-agency cooperation,” have led to the decrease in auto theft.
“The coordinated efforts of everyone involved are working and our state’s continued decrease is proof of this,” said Brian Salata, Executive Director of AATA, in the press release.
“Technology has developed a lot over the past several years,” said Hough. “Use of bait cars, license plate readers, and other technology has allowed us to locate and recover vehicles, I think, a lot quicker than we have in the past.”
However, the smuggling problem is not going away, and vehicles tied directly to smuggling crimes continue to be recovered.
For the past three or four years, the numbers of vehicles being recovered in the desert near Pinal County has remained pretty constant, said Hough.
Two detectives assigned there have recovered more than five hundred vehicles a year, said Hough.
DRUG HARVEST MONTH
October in Mexico is a known as a drug harvest month. “They’re going to be bringing things up through Mexico,” said Det. Charlie Warner, a member of the Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force. “So there will be a bigger demand for the trucks to bring the supplies up.”
“I would say, on an average day in the Phoenix Metro Valley area, (several vehicles are stolen) a day,” said Hough. “It goes in spurts…like everything else.”
MAKING A BUST
“We’ve had to change up our tactics,” said Det. Charlie Warner, a member of the task force.
“Typically, we set up out on the freeway,” he said. “We’ll set up our machines to capture plates to help us catch anything going south,” he explained, describing the license plate readers that help them find stolen vehicles.
Warner said the task force uses spikes to slow down the criminals, but thieves will often try to out-run the police when they get caught.
“They’re going through the right-of-way fence and into the desert because they know we’re going to be up there with the spikes,” he said.
Often times the thieves are armed. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what he’s going to do,” he said, describing the high adrenaline he experiences when he spots a stolen vehicle and the driver starts speeding away.
Detectives warn it can take less than a minute for a thief to quietly break into an unprotected vehicle and drive away.
“You felt like you were secure – like your vehicle was locked. Your alarm was on. You were in a safe parking lot,” said Jackson. “Next thing you know – you find your vehicle has been stolen, and what it has been used for is even more unnerving.”
Hough said sometimes thieves will park the vehicle at a separate location for a few hours after stealing it, to test whether it has a tracking device on it. If it is not recovered during that time, they will continue driving the vehicle south.
When they’re recovered after they’ve been abandoned, the damage on the vehicle tells a story of how the vehicle has been used.
Hough explained how smugglers often cut the seatbelts in the backseat of the trucks and extend them through the windows to reach the top of the truck.
“They’ll get ten to fifteen people on top of a truck” he said, explaining how the seatbelts from inside the truck are converted into a strap for someone to hold, as they ride on top of the truck.
Smugglers also pack undocumented immigrants into the beds of the trucks, like sardines, to transport them across the dark desert quickly.
Hough said it is easy to tell which trucks have been used to transport so many people. The beds of the trucks will appear to be bowed because of the people and the weight pushing on the sides of the truck.
The ABC15 Investigators saw recovered trucks with large bullet holes, shredded tires and discarded food in them.
“They drive them until the tires are flat,” said Hough.
“Layer your vehicle with anti-theft devices,” said Hough, explaining the benefits of having an alarm, a steering wheel locking device, and a tracking device.
Warner recommended buying a device like The Club for the steering wheel. Anything that will slow down the thief, will help deter them, he said.
Awareness is also key. Call police if you witness anything suspicious.
An idling heavy-duty pick-up truck, with no driver, loaded with supplies, for example, could be a sign of an organized theft in progress.
A thief may have stolen the vehicle and staged it for the next driver to pick it up and drive it south. Calling the police could help stop the process before it’s too late.
Raw Video from Smuggler
Police Provide Information
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