By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Erin Erler was awoken last Friday morning by the sound of her doorbell.
One of her neighbors came over to ask if she knew the rims and tires of her car were missing.
“I said, ‘What?’” Erler said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying.”
Erler ran outside and looked at her car, which was parked in her driveway off North Avenue. It was sitting on a car jack and a small spare tire. All four rims and tires were gone.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Erler said. “Whoever did it, they’re very good at what they do.”
With the speed of a race car pit crew and in the darkness of night, an organized group of thieves has been going around the city stealing expensive rims and tires, police said. In some cases, the thefts happened right outside the car owners homes. They later discover their vehicles sitting on jacks or cement blocks.
Police said it’s happened 13 times in the last four months and 15 times since December, resulting in estimated losses of more than $150,000.
Eight of the thefts have occurred in parking lots of downtown apartment complexes.
“There are hundreds of people living in these apartments and you’d think someone would have seen something,” police Lt. Robert Pistone said. “We haven’t received a single call about the suspects and have not captured them on video. So at this point, they’ve been very elusive.”
Erler said the driveway of her home is in clear view of the main road and is close to a street light.
“Police said this has been happening downtown and that they were surprised it happened in this area,” Erler said of her neighborhood, which is on the northern outskirts of Haverhill, near the Plaistow line.
One side of her car was sitting on a jack, while the other side was resting on a small spare tire and rim.
“You’re supposed to feel safe at home,” Erler said. “Now I know I have to lock everything up and not to leave anything outside, not even my own vehicle.”
She said the tires on her 2012 Honda Accord were practically new.
“If I didn’t have insurance coverage, I might be looking at a minimum of $3,000,” she said. “They still have to look at it (the car) to see if anything was damaged.”
Pistone said that in some cases, the set of tires and rims taken were worth more than $10,000. He said that tires and rims from five of the vehicles accounted for a total of more than $60,000 in losses, not including any damage to the cars or towing costs.
“The total losses amount to a staggering amount of money,” Pistone said.
Police said the thieves are targeting late-model foreign cars, including luxury and sports cars.
“The unfortunate thing for a lot of these people is they have to wait for their insurance companies to settle their claims, and in many cases the cars are left on jacks or blocks for weeks or months,” Pistone said.
Police believe the thefts are the work of a highly organized group and that they’re careful not to leave any evidence behind — other than jacks and blocks.
“We are asking residents to be vigilant and to call the police if they see suspicious people or vehicles in the parking lots after dark,” Pistone said.
The latest theft was reported to police on Wednesday morning, when the driver of an expensive Nissan 380Z sports car discovered the vehicle sitting on jacks and without rims or tires in a private parking lot at the Cordovan apartment complex on downtown Locust Street.
The lot is surrounded on three sides by apartments.
Police estimate the cost to replace the rims and tires of the Nissan 380Z will be in excess of $6,000.
That is not including the cost of repairing any damage that may have resulted after the jacks that were holding up the passenger side of the car moved out of position and that side of the car collapsed onto the pavement.
“It appears that this is happening in neighboring towns as well,” Pistone said in reference to an arrest last month in North Andover of two Lawrence men who were charged with stealing rims and tires from a silver Acura.
On the morning of July 26, police in North Andover went to a home on Edgelawn Avenue after a neighbor reported two men removing the wheels from a silver Acura parked at 25 Edgelawn Ave.
Police found one of the suspects inside a minivan. That man, Luis Higs, 20, of 19 Union St., was arrested.
A second suspect, Argenis Carpio, 20, of 163 High St., was arrested after he fled to the nearby Wood Ridge housing complex, police said.
Police found the Acura was missing two wheels and was resting on blocks. The missing wheels were in the minivan, along with a tire iron, police said.
Carpio and Higs pleaded not guilty to larceny over $250 at their arraignment in Lawrence District Court.
They were released on their own personal recognizance pending pretrial hearings on Oct. 9.