A small convoy of Atlanta Police vehicles weaved through backstreets Monday morning hours before sunrise.
The line of unmarked trucks, SUVs, a minivan and three marked, flat-topped police cars stopped in front of a small house in the 1800 block of Lisbon Drive, and nearly a dozen heavily armed cops step into the cool air, thick with the pungeant smell of marijuana.
But drugs and drug runners weren’t their intended target this morning – they were looking for car thieves.
Once the house is safely surrounded, the lead officer knocked loudly. Within minutes, preceded by muffled shouting heard from outside the home, officers emerged with Price Smith, 50 – his arms handcuffed behind his back beneath a striped polo shirt.
“Man, I didn’t steal no cars,” Smith said, before he is plucked from beneath the amber street light and tucked into the dark back seat of a waiting patrol car.
Scenes like this were repeated dozens of times Monday morning, and stretching back through the beginning of the weekend, as an auto theft task headed by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. sought nearly 100 people indicted earlier this month on accusations they stole older cars and forged the titles to sell them as scrap metal.
“What we are looking for are perps who are likely at home in their beds now,” Lt. Terry Joyner, head of the Atlanta Police fugitive squad, told more than 50 Fulton County and Atlanta police officers, Fulton D.A.’s investigators and U.S. Marshals and FBI agents gathered early Monday morning in the parking lot of the Atlanta Civic Center.
“Be careful out there.”
Howard’s office issued arrest warrants for some 96 individuals accused of stealing more than 300 cars.
"Stealing cars in Fulton County is big business," Howard said on Tuesday. "We hope these indictments and these arrests send a message."
Called Operation Heavy Metal, the massive police roundup is aimed at cutting down what police have described as a new form of auto theft emerging in the metro Atlanta area.
“They steal the car, make a fake bill of sale and that way they can take it to a crusher,” Joyner said Monday while riding to a task force arrest. “They don’t have to have a title.”
Any vehicle 12 years old or older is a target to these thieves, authorities said. They’re likely to weigh more, thus netting more profit when they’re crushed for scrap, and Georgia law allows 12-year-old cars to be sold to a recycler with only a driver’s license and a “Title of Cancellation” showing the seller actually owns the car.
And cars are going for between $500 and $800 or more.
“By the time anybody figures it all out, they’re gone,” Joyner said.
Still, the identifications are linked to the vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, of each car, Atlanta police auto theft unit commander Lt. Rick Mason said.
The FBI ranked the Atlanta area as fourth in the nation in the number of auto thefts each year, and last year police say more than 2,000 were stolen within the city limitsalone, with only 500 recovered.
But with these new thefts, the targets have shifted from newer, high-end cars often taken from dealerships and owners by hot-wiring or making counterfeit keys.
Now all the thieves need is a tow truck to snatch a car stranded alone on the side of the road or from driveways, businesses or church parking lots, police said.
Victims are often drivers who don’t pay for more than the liability insurance coverage in the event of an accident, and often need their cars to get to and from work.
Who it hurts
Chadwick McClure awoke one July morning to find that the 1992 Chevy S-10 pickup truck he used to get to and from work -- and to run his side business, Triple M Audio Installation -- had been stolen.
"I had to close down my business," McClure said. "I had liability insurance, in case of a wreck. But at the time, it didn't seem to make sense to do more."
All of his tools and equipment were on the truck, and he said he's been forced to rely on public transportation and friends to get to and from his day job.
"I never thought somebody would steal a truck that old," he said. "Especially with all the markings on it for my business."
Schemika Coverson lost two of the 15-passenger vans she used for her southwest Atlanta daycare last January.
"I had just gotten such a good deal on both of them," said Coverson, whose commercial comprehensive insurance replaced the vans. "But I had to invest another $4,000 into them when I bought them. That, I couldn't get back."
She used the two vans and a third one that was spared to pick up and drop off children attending her Visionary Learning Academy, as well as to transport school-aged students from her pre- and after-care programs to school and back.
"So you work overtime transporting kids, and ask parents to help out where they can," Coverson said.
While she was able to replace the vans, she couldn't escape the $100 bump to her insurance premium or the feeling of uncertainty about owning the vehicles and parking them at her business.
"I'm scared they'll be stolen again," Coverson said.
"We began looking at this as a trend more than a year and a half ago," Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said.
The task force began working to identify suspects six months ago, authorities said.
"A lot of cars that were stolen were never recovered," Mason said. "We realized the scrap yards were crushing them before we could ever find them."
Police learned that documents for selling the cars to the scrap yards were typically being falsified.
But, “when they take [the cars] to the crushers, they’re actually having to sign for them and use their actual ID’s,” Joyner said.
So literally within minutes of the sale, the cars were reduced to scrap, Mason said.
"It takes as little as four minutes to crush a car once the sale is done," he said. "Of the 300-some cars in this investigation, all are gone."
Monday morning , police, federal agents and U.S. Marshals split up into teams to track down search warrant subjects throughout Atlanta and into other areas of Fulton and adjoining counties, going as far away as Hampton and Conley.
Police identified three area recyclers -- Newell Recycling in East Point, Intonu in south Fulton County, and Pick-a-Part in Fairburn, where cars were being taken. But Fulton County Deputy Chief Gary Stiles said state laws allow them to receive cars without reprisal so long as they are given documents showing ownership.
"The recycler could legally accept the car based on a hand-written note that turns the car over to the recycler," Stiles said.
Back at the Civic Center, Assistant District Attorney Sharla Jackson oversaw the tally of warrants as the police and marshals returned with their marks.
And jail staffers from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office were on hand with police and D.A.’s office staffers to process suspects into the jail’s computer system before they were shackled at the waist and loaded into a van to take them to the Fulton County jail on Rice Street.
“I’m a 50-year-old man,” Price Smith, arrested earlier in the morning, told jail staff as he was interviewed and locked into a prisoner transport van. “You shouldn’t be doing this to me.”
He was charged with theft by taking and unlawful manufacturing and distribution of a controlled substance. He remains in the Fulton County jail on $50,000 bond.
Of course, not every location turned out to be a successful bust as Monday wore on.
With two grabs under their belt by the start of rush hour, Joyner’s team – including several of his fugitive squad and six members of APD’s new A.P.E.X. tactical unit – descended upon a business in Cabbagetown to no avail.
“The door is padlocked,” one of the fugitive squad officers told Joyner. “Nobody’s there.”
“We’ll come back for him,” Joyner said.
Monday's operation wrapped up at noon, and by the end of a second sweep late morning Tuesday, police said they had 46 suspects -- nearly half of those indicted -- in custody.
Turner said law enforcement officials are working with state legislators to enact tougher laws that would, among other things, require a two-week waiting period before scrappers can pay out for cars.
Coverson likes that plan.
"I'm for the 14-day hold," she said. "Even though it's legal to [pay for the cars right away], businesses should want to do the right thing and make sure their business practices aren't hurting other people."
In the meantime, Mason, the head of Atlanta's auto theft unit, said he now collects vehicle identification numbers.
"Every single VIN number that goes to those recyclers comes to us," he said. "If you steal and scrap a car in Atlanta, you will get caught."
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