GPS ... Stereo ... Cell phone ... If a thief took one of those items from your Honda—along with your Honda—they may be sitting in the police department, where detectives are piecing together evidence against a prolific ring of car thieves.
The trove of recovered booty came from a West Rock apartment raided by cops last week.
Besides the cornucopia of automotive goodies, the cops made four arrests and gathered firsthand testimony about how teenaged car thieves swipe Hondas in New Haven. In some cases, all it takes is a flat-head screwdriver.
The raid followed a big break in a weeks-long quest to get a handle on a rash of Honda thefts that have hit the city so far this year—a development that reflects the methodical step-by-step work detectives need to do first to track down alleged thieves, then to make a case stick.
Thieves have stolen at least 84 Hondas in New Haven since Jan. 1, more than half of all the purloined vehicles in town. Most of the Hondas were built in the 1990s, before the company improved security.
In response to the thefts, the police department’s identification bureau began holding on to recovered Hondas to process for evidence. Patrol officers stayed in touch with detectives from the robbery/burglary unit about any word on the street about car thieves.
By last Monday, a picture was emerging of a ring of teens operating out of the Hill neighborhood.
Detectives were working on that while simultaneously preparing for a changing of the guard. Most of the robbery/burglary unit’s detectives had recently shipped out to new assignments. Unit chief Sgt. Robert Lawlor Jr. (at right in photo), a second-generation New Haven detective, and Det. Manuella Vensel (at left) were devoting much of Monday to a first-day orientation for two shifts of new detectives.
Around 2 p.m., they heard a report on the radio: Hill patrol Officer Rob Clark was following the driver of a stolen car. A Honda Civic.
He checked the plates as he followed the driver into the Church Street South housing projects. It turned out that West Haven police had reported the car stolen minutes before.
The Honda driver stopped. Three doors flew open; three people ran out. Officers pursued and caught two of them.
They brought the suspects to the detective bureau for questioning. Shifts were about to change; the new burglary/robbery detectives were about to get their first tastes of double shifts on a breaking investigation.
“The names [of the suspects] rang a bell,” recalled Vensel. Especially the name of one of the suspects, who’s 15 years old. His name had popped up as one of the alleged Hill-based ring members.
Vensel, who was overseeing the investigation, and another detective began working on a search warrant for the boy’s home based on a report there of a stolen gun and a key used for Honda thefts. Meanwhile, teams of detectives interviewed the two suspects separately.
They talked—or more accurately, they boasted, according to Lawlor.
“They all bragged about their jobs” in the ring, he recalled. They described how they and a third accomplice played distinct roles: “‘He drives really good so we let him drive.’ They had it down to a science. They were doing it in under a minute, and they’d be gone.
“It was almost like they were talking about playing basketball. This was their hobby.”
One of the trio’s members would jam a screwdriver in between the driver’s window and the weather stripping to pry open the window a bit. One kid would then reach an arm inside to open the lock.
The 15-year-old was allegedly the master of starting the ignition. The group reported using a “master key,” which they made by filing down the ridges of a stolen Honda ignition key. They had lost that master key recently when they had to bail out of a stolen Honda in a chase with the cops. Now the kid was using the screwdriver, jamming it in the ignition, and still starting the car within seconds.
Given his age, the 15-year-old might draw the curiosity of cops if he stayed behind the wheel, so an older teen would actually drive the car away.
In some cases the kids stripped the cars and sold parts or accessories, according to Lawlor. In other cases they charged people maybe $100 for the right to drive a stolen car around for a day, at which point the customer would be responsible for ditching it.
The cops arrested the two suspects on charges of fleeing and interfering. The boy was released to his parents; the 18-year-old was held.
Meanwhile, the investigation was just beginning.
Vensel and Det. Jessica Stone finished the warrant application and brought it to the home of Judge Bruce Thompson around 10 p.m. Monday to be signed.
Then the detectives joined the SWAT team early the next morning, around 6, at the Westville Manor housing project in West Rock for a raid on the 15-year-old’s family’s apartment. (The family had recently moved there from the Hill.)
Inside the apartment they found the 15-year-old; an 18-year-old who was the alleged third suspect who’d run from cops at Church Street South; the 15-year-old’s mother; his stepfather; two little sisters, and a baby brother. The baby had already awoken the family prior to the raid, according to Lawlor. The SWAT team kept the apartment’s occupants in the kitchen while detectives searched the apartment.
They came across three Honda tires in the living room. Vensel found a recent New Haven Register clipping on the 15-year-old’s wall: a story about Branford police arresting him and accomplices for stealing cars in their town.
And they found trunkloads of cellphones and car devices: GPSs, stereo systems, headlights, tailpipe extensions.
They also found a loaded .380 pistol with serial numbers scratched off, along with bullets that go with other types of guns. Police charged the stepfather, a felon, with illegal ownership of the stolen gun. They arrested the 18-year-old alleged accomplice as well.
The recovered evidence filled up more than two trunks of cruisers headed back to the station. That’s when a new phase of the investigation began: sifting through all those items.
Detectives spent until 5 p.m. the day of the raid logging in all the evidence then until almost midnight beginning to sift through it for clues. Sgt. Lawlor, who had had to spend much of the day in Meriden testifying in an unrelated court case, arrived at 6 p.m. with six pies from Modern Apizza for the detectives, many of whom were pulling long hours again in only their second day in the unit. “We were pushing them [right] into the pool,” he said.
The police are still in the process of sifting all that evidence to build their case. They’ve contacted cell phone providers seeking records of some of the phones’ owners, whom they’ll contact to see if they’d had cars stolen. They’re checking other items to match them with reports of car thefts. Some of the thefts appear to have taken place in suburbs outside New Haven.
The teens boasted of stealing multiple cars per day for weeks, Lawlor said. The police don’t have any estimate of how many of the 84 New Haven thefts the ring allegedly committed; they expect to tie a good number to the crew, based not only on the suspects’ statements but also on all the items found in the apartment. So far investigators have tied five Honda thefts to the crew, according to Lawlor and Vensel.
The 15-year-old, reached by phone Friday, told the Independent, “I don’t know how to steal Hondas.” Asked to elaborate, he replied, “I’m good. I don’t need to talk about it.” His mother said news reports had inaccurately described the raid, but she too declined to discuss the matter.
Vensel asked anyone who has had a Honda stolen recently—and who happens to know the serial number of a GPS inside the car—to contact the bureau at (203) 946-6304.