It was 10 below zero when a St. Paul man started up the family’s only working car, a 1996 Chevy Cavalier, so his wife could take their ailing teenage son to the doctor.
But minutes later, the unlocked car was gone, and with it, $4,500 of valuables left inside, including four toolboxes owned by her husband, a laid-off carpenter who couldn’t replace all of them.
Within hours, the car was crushed at a nearby salvage yard, with no title needed. Under Minnesota law, anyone with a car more than six years old doesn’t need to show a title of ownership, but only to sign an affidavit attesting to ownership.
Now, the mother, Kathy Raine, is joining with other victims, police, prosecutors and the scrap-metal industry to tighten loopholes in state law by requiring a five-day holding period before older, undocumented cars can be crushed and by requiring better tracking of salvaged-metal sales.
“If there were a holding period, I don’t think he would have stolen my car,” said Raine. “I don’t think he would have bothered,” she said of Keith A. Price, who is now behind bars for the theft.
Overall, an estimated 23 vehicles are stolen each day in Minnesota, and authorities say older cars are stolen most often for salvage. Besides the lax title rules, older cars are generally heavier so they bring more salvage money.
It’s not just a vehicle issue. From Dakota to Sherburne counties and beyond, thieves are swiping farm irrigators and other metal equipment.
Stealing copper piping in buildings can lead to explosions. Cutting electrical wire can lead to injuries and death. In one example, a man was injured while trying to cut wiring beneath St. Paul streets.
“These criminals are moving much quicker [than law enforcement] because they’re committing the crimes, taking the cars to the scrap yard and then within a matter of hours, the cars are scrapped,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “And if you don’t have comprehensive insurance, you’re out of luck.”
Many of the victims’ situations are “incredibly sad,” he said, because they don’t have a few thousand dollars to replace a vehicle uninsured for theft.
Raine recently testified at the State Capitol for reforms in the way that the salvage yards can accept scrap metal — which includes not only cars but copper and other salvaged metal — with sales entered immediately into an electronic system that’s already tracking pawned goods.
Different versions of the measure have made it onto both the House and Senate floors, with the waiting period reduced from 15 to five days to address concerns of the salvage industry.
Many states are now considering such legislation, said Choi, who calls the measure one of his top priorities.
He led a crackdown in Ramsey County in 2011, with a sting in which 10 people were charged with dozens of auto thefts.
On Friday, one of the leaders, Lionel Warner, 52, of St. Paul, faces sentencing after pleading guilty to 15 counts of auto theft in Ramsey County District Court. His cohort, Matthew B. Williams, 30, is serving six months and five years’ probation on 26 counts of auto theft.
Choi is among law enforcers who will be meeting with leaders in the scrap industry April 5 to negotiate provisions to help prevent vehicle and metal thefts.
Craig Greenberg, attorney for Metro Metals, where Raine’s car was crushed, said businesses will need extra space to hold vehicles for the allotted time.
“Many of them are landlocked and grandfathered in for their specific use, and it’s not going to be easy for them to buy the land next door and expand,” he said.
Addressing the problem
Metro Metals has been trying to address the problem by hiring off-duty officers to check vehicle identification numbers against stolen vehicles reported. In early 2012, Greenberg said, Metro Metals began holding vehicles until they were fully checked out by the off-duty officers. The firm installed surveillance cameras and takes driver’s license numbers from tow operators or private sellers along with other data, which it saves for years.
“In fact, they’ve caught stolen vehicles this way, and then turned them over to police, who have made arrests,” Greenberg said.
Still, Raine and David Markle, another victim whose vehicle was also destroyed at Metro Metals, objected to the company issuing the sellers debit cards that can be cashed at an ATM on its property. Current law says sellers can’t receive cash; reformers want checks issued.
Markle’s beloved 1988 Isuzu Trooper, which he customized for mountain use, was towed away by thieves and crushed last year. It wasn’t insured for theft. Markle has testified that the bill contains “outstanding features.”
Among them: the proposed mandatory immediate reporting into the automated system now used to track pawned items.
“It’s a wonderful idea, and it’s easy to do,” Markle said. “It enables the police to match up what’s going into the yards with what’s been stolen, and do it rapidly.”