Postal worker downtime leads to muscle car theft episode arrests

Detroit Thieves use cloned keys to steal Dodge muscle cars and other high-powered vehicles directly from dealerships and even automakers in Michigan, then sell them for tens of thousands of dollars undervalued, according to authorities and court records.

For one theft episode in Ohio, it all collapsed after the detention of a US postal worker in January led authorities to link several men to brazen car thefts in the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest automakers, including Dodge, now owned by the international conglomerate Stellantis.

Investigators then discovered that new Chargers, Challengers, Durangos and Ram trucks worth $50,000 to $100,000 were showing up in the Ohio, Indianapolis and East Coast ports after being sold on the street for $3,500 to $15,000, according to a criminal complaint.

Detroit-area thieves pursue Dodge vehicles with Hellcat engines, including chargers and Challengers – “Quick”, Sgt. said Jerry Hanna with Macomb’s Auto Theft Squad.

“If you get them a patrol car, they don’t stop and they are faster than the patrol cars. It’s 150 mph all day,” he said.

Instead of stealing them off the street, they drive them right out of the sales and collection areas.

This year alone, about half a dozen vehicles—mainly Dodge Ram TRX pickups—were taken from a lot outside an assembly plant in Macomb County.

After security tightened on some parts with Dodge vehicles, more than a dozen 2022 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup trucks were pulled from a factory in June in suburban Dearborn. More than a dozen Ford Mustangs were stolen in early September from an auto assembly plant in Flat Rock, southeast of Detroit.

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Thieves targeted Dodges with hand-held electronic “professional pads” — a locksmith tool that can clone keys by plugging them into vehicles’ internal ports, according to the federal complaint in the Ohio case.

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

An indictment was filed against Rice and others in federal court in Ohio in June. Jaylen Harris, Laville Jones, and Hakim Benjamin are charged with conspiracy and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. Rice, Harris, and Jones are also accused of mail theft. Their trials are scheduled for next year.

Harris’ attorney declined to comment. The Associated Press left emails and phone messages seeking comment from attorneys for Benjamin, Rice and Jones.

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

Videos posted on social media show how high-horsepower vehicles outplayed and evaded the police.

“Benjamin drove a $95,000 2022 Dodge Challenger at 120 mph down Ohio State Highway 2 on Sunday evening in February,” a judge stated in an arrest warrant.

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“The Spike tapes were ultimately needed to remind Benjamin that the law required him to comply with police orders,” the judge wrote.

About two years ago, police in Ottawa County, Ohio, began noticing vehicles exploding along Route 2. The mayor’s office has received calls about reckless driving, Capt. Aaron List said.

“These cars go 140-150 mph. They all have Hellcat engines. We had a lot of pursuits. We didn’t catch all of them.”

Investigators learned that most of the vehicles were stolen in the Detroit area and moved to Cleveland. Others were headed to Memphis, Tennessee, List said.

“We started working with (Stellantis) in early 2022,” he said. They would call us and say ‘these cars are missing from us’.

A spokeswoman for Stylantis declined to comment.

Added security measures on some of the lots included concrete barriers, according to law enforcement.

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

“I think they were able to find some keys in the desk drawer and used them,” he added.

Police tracked one of the stolen cars, a Durango Hellcat SRT valued at approximately $100,000, to a northwest Detroit suburb. The driver hit a brick wall while fleeing. 2021 Dodge Durango GT, 2021 Dodge RAM TRX and 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat SRT are recalled.

The authorities arrested four people. They were not believed to have stolen the vehicles, but paid $5,000 for one.

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“In the Detroit area they sell it for $3,500,” Hanna said. “Once they have that money in their pocket, they go out and steal another one.”

For agents and their insurance companies, the cost is high. Even recalled cars can’t be sold for what they were once worth.

Schneider said his agency came up with an “old school” solution: parking shoes.

“It is a deterrent that works amazingly,” he said. “We put shoes on all Hellcats.”

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