In the Old West, horses were not domesticated pets, they were personal transportation. Horses enabled the pioneers to explore the vast American frontier. Horses provided the farmer, soldier, and cowboy his livelihood. Stealing a man's horse robbed him of his ability to earn a living and possibly stranded him in the wilderness, which could ultimately cause his death.

Accordingly, horse theft was universally considered a hanging offence. Capital punishment was commonly administered to captured horse thieves by judges, juries and vigilantes. As a result horses could be left tied to hitching posts in town or running free on the open range protected only by their owner's brand. In my opinion a little of this attitude is needed today when dealing with car thieves.

After World War II automobiles became more plentiful in America and an attitude of tolerance for youthful GTA suspects became common. The hot rod and the low rider were often built from parts stripped from stolen cars. These highly modified vehicles were often neighborhood projects built by groups of several young men and teens. Sometimes these cars were built by gangs. About this time also, gangs began to specialize in Grand Theft Auto. And unfortunately, we are still lenient toward these criminals.

I have personally known gang members who over the course of a lifetime have stolen hundreds of cars. That's because GTA is very profitable. Gang run chop shops double and quadruple their profits derived from stolen rides by selling the vehicles' parts separately. In addition, thousands of stolen vehicles worth millions of dollars are smuggled into Mexico each year.

One of my old informants, Compton Lantana Block Crip Michael Robinson, was once featured on the television program "That's Incredible" completely dismantling a Porsche in about 20 minutes using only hand tools.

Gang members also steal vehicles to use in other crimes. Burglaries, robberies, and drive-by shootings are often preceded by gang members stealing a car. Car customizing shops are also used by gang members to install hidden narcotics stash compartments.

Despite all this GTA activity by gangs, felony GTA charges are rarely filed against these gang members. Unless the vehicle theft can be tied to a GTA ring or a chop shop, the gang member will usually be charged with the lesser crime of "joy riding" because the "intent to permanently deprive" the victim of his or her vehicle is difficult to prove.

This is partly due to the fact that the auto theft detective is normally the lowest position in the station detective division. Most victims are also afraid to testify against gang members and auto insurance companies usually pay off their losses, at least partially, anyway. Consequently, everyone wants to avoid lengthy court appearances and court costs.

As a result gang members, especially juveniles, receive little incarceration and lots of probation for car crimes. To gang members this is like a dog with rubber teeth, lots of bark but no bite. Almost every gang member I came in contact with in East Los Angeles and South Central Los Angeles had several prior convictions for some type of car theft.

I think that after the traditional "jump in," carjacking or GTA is the most common gang initiation. And it's no small crime.

Vehicle theft is the most common property crime in the U.S., costing consumers more than $8.2 billion annually. We pay for this in the cost of vehicles and parts and in our mandatory purchase of auto insurance, and insurance companies do not operate at a loss. Nearly 40 percent of all stolen vehicles occur in or near sea ports or border communities. According to the National Crime Information Center, 956,846 motor vehicles were stolen in 2008 and only 12 percent of these thefts were cleared by arrests.

In my opinion the work of specialized units like Los Angeles County Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention (TRAP) are underused in gang suppression.

A few years ago TRAP deployed a bait car in the Whittier area and successfully apprehended a notorious Mexican Mafia member on tape. He happily took the bait and entered the bait car humming and talking out loud about how he was going to steal the vehicle but after a short ride he was "trapped like a rat!"

I watched on tape as the vehicle locked him in and the deputies appeared. I laughed myself onto the floor at his panicked expression. After all the crimes this Mexican Mafia member had committed, he was caught so simply by a bait car and a video camera. This same bait system is utilized in the Laughlin Biker Run when bait bikes are employed against outlaw motorcycle gangs.

The early intervention in a juvenile's involvement in joy riding and grand theft auto with serious sentences and enhanced probation supervision can prevent more serious gang involvement in his future. Shutting down a gang's stolen vehicle conspiracy operations can be used to impact the gang's leadership and financial arm and help law enforcement take it apart.

The intelligent use of informants, video surveillance, stings, and technology to track stolen vehicles and their parts will result in more serious felony filings and conspiracy prosecutions and these can devastate the gangs.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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