Officer Eddie Morrone was just starting the morning shift, heading downtown toward Elm Street in his cruiser. He spotted a gray 1997 Honda Civic with two men inside. He wondered: Could that be the stolen car tied to an armed robbery the night before?
Morrone—known as Officer “U-Turn” for his quick 180s when he spots a suspicious-looking car or person—would normally look at the “hot sheet” taped to his dashboard. That sheet lists the license plates and makes of the most recently reported stolen cars. Morrone and his partner, Officer William Hurley, rely on it like a daily grocery list. They spend their entire shifts looking for stolen cars. They end up crossing a lot of entries off that list.
But Morrone hadn’t yet taped the list to his dashboard on this morning, the week before last. He didn’t want to lose sight of the Civic; he still wasn’t sure if it was the car he was looking for.
At 7 a.m. line-up moments before, Morrone and Hurley had heard about a rash of car thefts from Deep River; the autos kept showing up abandoned at the Church Street South housing complex. In this latest case, whoever had stolen the Honda Civic—it almost always seems to be a Honda—had committed an armed robbery, on Poplar Street in Fair Haven. (They made off with a woman’s sneakers.)
Morrone remembered another detail from line-up: The stolen car in question had a yoga sticker on the bumper. He looked at the Civic. Bingo: A yoga sticker on the bumper.
He radioed the info in as he kept driving. He decided not to turn on the siren.
“I was doing the old ‘cobra in the bunny suit’—I didn’t want to let them know I was onto them. I pretended to turn on the AM-FM radio. At one point, I was ahead of them.”
Hurley is often in the car with Morrone on their daily rounds. This morning, Hurley was in his own cruiser. He hurried over from the East Shore. He and some other officers caught up with Morrone and the Honda’s driver as they headed into the Hill.
“They [the driver and passenger] put two and two together when they saw the other cars coming,” Morrone recalled in a joint interview Wednesday at Bru Cafe.
The passenger jumped out of the car while it was still moving. The driver kept going until he turned onto one-way White Street, headed in the wrong direction. He bailed out of the car and ran.
The cops caught him as well as the passenger. And the owner of another stolen car got it back.
A Sunday Drive
Ed Morrone and Billy Hurley like when that happens. They feel proud the way a detective feels tracking down a mugger or a fisherman feels landing a prize marlin. By their estimate, they’ve tracked down some 500 stolen cars since they started working together formally and full-time on the mission in 2007. They’ve helped catch some 50 to 60 car thieves, too.
“The two of them find cars left and right,” said their supervisor, Sgt. Richard Miller. “Officers have different niches. Some are good with narcotics investigations. These guys drive around. They hang around hot spots. They sit and watch” and use both instinct and experience to find stolen cars.
Morrone and Hurley didn’t come to their specialty through a love of cars. They’re not gearheads. Morrone drives a 2001 Jeep Cherokee. (“I’m hoping somebody will steal it,” he jokes.) Rather, they gravitated toward it through their commitment to police work, a vocation that runs in their families. Morrone, who’s 51, has worn a badge for 20 years; his dad (also Ed) was New Haven’s chief, his uncle Albert a sergeant. Hurley, 54, is coming up on 30 years; his two brothers are retired city cops. “We have almost 200 years of policing in our blood,” Hurley noted. And they seemed to have stolen-car radar in their genes.
They discovered their mutual interest in stolen cars when they were working patrol. They were assigned to different parts of town, Morrone to the Hill, Hurley to Newhallville. They found themselves teaming up before they were ever officially a team.
One Sunday both were on duty. Hurley was investigating an East Rock burglary. A man had broken into a home, swiped the keys to a Chrysler van, and driven it to Cottage Street. He dumped the van there, broke into another house, stole keys and a BMW.
Morrone was working the Hill. He noticed a BMW pass. He had a hunch the car might be stolen from “the way the guys [inside] looked at me—the deer in the headlights look.” (“It’s almost like, ‘Oh shit, does he know we stole it?’” Hurley added as the two recalled the story.)
Morrone ran the plates. The car hadn’t been reported as stolen.
A minute after the car passed, Morrone got an email from Hurley. Hurley described the newly stolen car. Same description.
Time for a U-turn.
Morrone drove westbound on Congress Avenue, where he’d seen the stolen car’s driver head. He turned onto side streets where he thought they might have traveled. “Within five minutes I spotted them,” parked. They spotted him too—and took off in the car.
It wasn’t a chase. He just followed behind and radioed for backup. The thieves ditched the car over by the Farnam Courts housing project. Officers caught up with them on foot. The car was recovered, and burglars went to lock-up.
A Baby At Risk
Morrone and Hurley formally started working together when they won assignments to the statewide auto theft task force. After that stint, they were reassigned to patrol in the Hill neighborhood, still together. Inevitably, they kept turning up stolen cars. Finally their supervisors prevailed on then-Chief James Lewis to make it official: The two became full-time partners assigned to stolen-vehicle cases.
Their expertise came in handy last July 4th.
They joined a flood of fellow officers in responding to a harrowing report that morning on the east side of town: Carjackers fled with a woman’s car —with a 20-month-old baby strapped to a seat inside—when she stopped at a gas station to buy ice on the way to the beach. She had left the engine running so her baby could have air-conditioning.
Police spent hours looking for the car. The woman’s cellphone had remained in the car; a “ping” had been detected in North Haven. So cops looked there.
But Morrone and Hurley decided to stay closer to the scene, based on their experience with car thieves.
“That’s a car thief, not a kidnapper,” Morrone reasoned. “As soon as he sees that kid, he’s out of there.”
“We said, ‘It had to be close,’” Hurley recalled.
One report came in of the car being seen headed toward East Haven. Morrone guessed that if the carjacker noticed the baby, he would then turn back around to ditch the car away from a main street. Hurley found the car near the East Haven border on Ashland Street—pointed back toward New Haven. The baby was safe.
Just 25 minutes later that same morning, police were on the lookout for another stolen car with two young men inside. The driver of that vehicle almost ran over a cop, then fled. Morrone and Hurley caught up with the car—and arrested the suspects. One of them, who was accused of trying to run over the cop, got a nine-month jail sentence.
The Doorless Coupe Was Still Running
The vehicle in that case was Dodge Stratus. That made the case unusual. Much of the time Morrone and Hurley find themselves chasing Hondas. Specifically Hondas with model years 1992-1998. The cars’ ignitions were easier to pick. And many parts from different models were interchangeable. Doors, for instance, could be switched easily. “You can buy a junk and steal one that’s the same color and change the doors,” Morrone noted. “Nobody would know the difference.” He added that often the ignitions don’t even need to be popped. “When you catch [thieves], they’ll have a whole set of Honda keys on them. They’re all smoothed out.”
Last month, for instance, it was a Honda Civic that looked suspicious to the duo when they were cruising West River. It turned out to be stolen; a team of cops chased the people inside and found drugs on them as well.
This Tuesday, Hurley came across a Honda parked on Walnut Street in Jocelyn Square that matched a theft report; when he parked across the street, he noticed two more cars had open windows—even though it was raining. They’d been stolen too.
All three were Hondas.
Wednesday morning, before the Bru interview, Morrone was starting his day on the East Shore. He was called off the auto theft beat for a day to fill in for patrol. Of course his first call was to check out a suspicious car parked in Fairmount Park—and it turned out to be stolen.
“It didn’t have any doors on it. And the ignition was ripped apart,” Morrone said. “That was a clue.”
The car’s make? A Honda Civic coupe. The engine was still running.
The car belongs to a Yale graduate student living on Whitney Avenue. Morrone contacted her. She hadn’t even realized yet that the car had disappeared.
“You really mess up somebody’s day when you steal their car,” Morrone said. “It’s a rewarding feeling when you get somebody’s car back and it’s intact.”
“It might sound corny, but it’s a good feeling when you help somebody,” by retrieving their car, agreed Hurley. “A lot of people don’t have money for another car. They’re just scraping by.”
Now that the woman had her car back, the next step was to find the thief. That takes more work. Morrone and Hurley keep track of trends to identify potential thieves.
Morrone and Hurley theorized about who might have taken the woman’s car. Some thieves are joyriders, taking one vehicle, ditching it without stealing anything inside, then pick up another. Others want to strip parts and sell them, like the person who took the Civic coupe that morning.
Morrone and Hurley keep tabs on when car thieves get out of jail. Sometimes they’ll see a new rash of thefts near that person’s home. In this case, they had a line on someone who used to live near the spot where some stolen cars have been found—and who is currently staying across town near where some other autos have been showing up.
However, that person tends to leave cars intact. A joyrider. Doesn’t seem to fit the profile.
Whoever the thief is, the trick is to find him in the act, according to Morrone. “It’s tough to lift prints inside a car.” And outside prints are less convincing evidence because lots of people can touch a vehicle while walking by. A cop’s internal radar is required. Two cops, in this case, will have that radar working.
Meanwhile, Hurley has advice for New Haven car owners: Buy the Club. And use it.
“You don’t know how many cars we find,” Hurley said, “people have a Club, but they have it on the back seat on the floor.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski
(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)