Car Theft: City Force Gaining Ground on Crime

Camden Courier-Post – March 17, 1985

That wasn’t always the case.

Statistics compiled by police in Camden city show nearly 300 stolen cars had been coming into the city each month late last year and early this year. They were being taken from the many shopping centers, apartment complexes and parking lots throughout the county.

The problem was so pervasive the FBI ranked Camden among its national leaders.

“Stolen cars were coming into the city in caravans,” said Captain Ralph Ferrari, commander of the city detective division and the man who formulated the plan that has cut auto thefts by more than 30 percent in the first two months of operation.

Ferrari said the situation got so bad that “something had to done – something aggressive, something ambitious.”

Camden’s response, “Operation Mattel” was launched January 8.

“We thought the name appropriate since we were dealing with the same thing that made that toymaker famous “Hot Wheels,” Ferrari explained.

The clientele was to prove similar, too.

“Unfortunately, we’ve found a lot of juveniles involved,” Ferrari said. “Smart kids, intelligent individuals. If they would exercise their brains, their capabilities in school, they’d probably be great students.

“The kids know they’re being used by adults to avoid the risk of arrest. But the prospect of getting anywhere between $100 to $300 a car is a temptation most teenagers can’t ignore, especially kids from families of low or no income. The juveniles aren’t concerned about being arrested because they know their release is imminent as soon as a parent or guardian shows up.”

The “Operation MatteI” task force is headed by Eldred and includes representatives from the Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township and Voorhees police departments, Port Authority Transit Corp., PATCO security officials and Eldred‘s experienced city squad.

Eldred says the biggest problem is catching the thieves.

“We’ve discovered that we are dealing with quite a sophisticated operation. It has taken some innovation to overcome the contingencies these car thieves have incorporated into their overall plan,” he said.

“Target areas have been identified.

Routes to and from these areas are determined in advance. Escape routes are even plotted,” he added.

Despite the refinements, the joint effort of “Operation Mattel” is beginning to put a sizable dent in auto thefts, and Eldred attributes this to new techniques developed during the crackdown.

“It used to be that stolen car reports were turned in with the rest of an officer’s records at the end of his shift,” he explained. “But we’ve found that issuing an immediate alert and a description of the stolen car as soon as it’s received frequently can lead to a quick recovery.

“If a car is not recovered within the first 10 or 15 minutes of its theft, there’s a good chance it might never turn up.”

Eldred offered the case of Robert Pacheco as an example.

A police raid this month on a pair of connecting garages rented by Pacheco in Camden uncovered car parts, including a car frame. The frame was traced to a car reported missing barely 48 hours earlier.

“That’s how fast they can disassemble a car,” Eldred said.

Stealing one is just as easy, according to the police official.

“Car thieves don’t even use Slim Jims anymore,” Eldred said, referring to the flat metal bars that can release a door lock by being slipped through the rubber gasket of a car’s window.

“The thieves have become so proficient with coat hangers that they can be inside a vehicle in 10 to 15 seconds,” he said. “Starting a car has become equally easy to a person who knows the mechanics of the operations within a steering column.”

Eldred declined to elaborate but said the knowledge he has gained through “Operation Mattel” has enabled him to start a car without an ignition key within 30 seconds.

“These people (car thieves) are so clever that they carry blank keys with them to insert into the ignition in case they are stopped by police who might want to know how the driver got the car going without a key,” he said.

Everything is very calculated from beginning to end.

“Car thieves know where they’re going and what they’re looking for. They get there by using the High-Speed Line or car pooling. Four or five steal an old clunker in town and drive out to the suburbs.

“They abandon the old car, each returning to the city in a newer stolen vehicle.

“In some cases where a thief believes he might have been spotted, we have discovered that he drives the vehicle to another shopping mall. Then he meanders through the shops until he feels it safe enough to drive home.”

Eldred said police don’t give up their search for a stolen vehicle after their immediate efforts prove negative and points to one case in which police found a stolen car in a North Camden vacant lot as an example.

“The area was somewhat open and we were concerned that it could aid a suspect’s escape, so we disabled the car and waited,” he said. “When the suspects encountered difficulty in starting the vehicle we had time to position ourselves and make an arrest.”

But things aren’t always that easy. “Many times, we have to pursue these people at speeds over 80 miles an hour on city streets,” Eldred said. “The latest thing is that when a suspect realizes he has no chance of getting away, he just Jumps out of the car arid lets it keep rolling. “

Even when they abandon the car, the suspects seem to have a pre-planned route of escape on foot.

“They run through vacant buildings and areas that clearly would have to be known to them. It’s almost like they rehearse it,” Eldred explained.

Remote vacant lots and abandoned buildings in North and East Camden are the most frequent drop areas.

The thieves’ favorite makes and models include the most popular domestic autos that have the same or similar body styles. Cars such such as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Pontiac Grand Prix. The Datsun, Toyota and Mazda are favored among foreign cars.

Once stolen, the cars are driven into some of Camden’s abandoned buildings, where they are stripped of accessories such as radios and clocks and other equipment such as batteries and tires. Sometime a fender, bumper or other car part is taken, but that is usually left to “chop shops” in the area.

About 20 percent of the cars stolen end up in chop shops and frequently are never seen again. The bulk are left where they’re stripped, according to Eldred.

But progress is being made.

Eldred said “Operation Mattel” has not only improved the recovery rate of stolen cars, but that arrest rates are up as well.

“We are averaging at least six arrests a week,” he said.

Most of those arrested, however, are not the major dealers police say are at the center of the stolen car operation in Camden County and the target of “Operation Mattel.”

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