A longtime criminal is in custody Thursday and accused of plucking dozens and possibly well more than 125 abandoned vehicles from along Twin Cities roadsides in recent months and then selling them for scrap, authorities said.
Towing operator James C. Jennings, 50, of St. Paul, remains jailed without bail in Anoka County after his arrest Wednesday on suspicion of receiving stolen property.
Police first snared Jennings in Coon Rapids, after he used a flatbed truck on May 1 and stole a “bait car” that was under police surveillance along Hwy. 610 near East River Road, according to authorities. A second vehicle on the truck at that time had recently been stolen in Blaine.
“We were seeing an uptick in the thefts” along the highway, said Coon Rapids police Detective Chad Duckson. “So we said, ‘Let’s put some bait out and see if he hits.’ ”
Jennings was arrested May 8 at his east metro office, where he operates Auto Assist Towing and Repair, and was charged with conspiracy to commit auto theft. He posted bail and was released.
Investigators later learned that Jennings has sold 143 mostly older and well-worn vehicles for scrap in the past four months to Alter Metal Recycling in Anoka, police said. Jennings was then arrested again Wednesday.
“Near as we can tell, he’s kind of a one-man show,” Duckson said. “He looks for broken-down cars, tows them and gets his money.”
Duckson said the vehicles probably netted between $300 and $600 each. So far, 50 of the vehicles have been confirmed as stolen from the metro area, according to police.
Duckson said he expects nearly all of the 143 vehicles will end up having been stolen.
The detective said the vehicles have been stolen from all over: “St. Paul, Coon Rapids, Brooklyn Park, Blaine and everywhere in between.”
Duckson said there’s no evidence that the scrap yard was in cahoots with Jennings, adding that “you need a “Ph.D. to figure out” the latest legal requirements in the metal recycling industry.
Scrap yards “are supposed to collect vehicle information for what is brought in,” namely a vehicle identification number, Duckson said. The yard then goes to a website “in a reasonable amount of time” and logs the number.
“Alter Metal is cooperating fully,” the detective said. “I don’t believe that they were acting criminally.”
Jennings’ criminal history in Minnesota spans more than a quarter-century, with convictions including check forgery, theft and fifth-degree assault.