By Bill Kirk
---- — LAWRENCE — It was a fairly typical report on a recent morning: a stolen car reportedly left on a side street, its interior completely stripped.
“All that’s left is the steering wheel,” the responding officer said over the police radio.
Towed by Sheehan’s to a storage lot off Merrimack Street in South Lawrence, the green Honda Civic looked relatively unscathed from the outside. But in reality, the exterior of the car was just a shell, since the seats and much of the rest of the interior had been removed by car thieves.
The steering column was torn apart so they could jump-start the car. The only thing in the cabin aside from an air-freshener and some other household debris, was an overturned white bucket, used by the thieves as a seat to drive the car to a drop-off point after they were done stripping it.
Mike Cyr of Sheehan’s Towing said the company tows an average of 10 to 15 stolen cars a week in Lawrence, like the one abandoned on Lea Street last week.
“I’d say two to five of them are completely stripped - interiors, doors, fenders, wheels - while the rest just have ignition damage or just a couple of parts missing,” said Cyr, who’s been working for the tow company about 15 years. “Ten years ago, it was a lot worse.”
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said that the number of stolen cars in Lawrence went up after a round of police layoffs.
In July 2010, the city was forced to lay off 40 police officers due to budget cuts, and Romero had to eliminate the department’s special operations units. Crime in all categories, including stolen cars, spiked as all the officers on the force were put in a “reactive” mode instead of “proactive, crime-fighting” mode, Romero said recently.
One of the units that was disbanded was the auto task force, which focused on preventing and solving insurance fraud and car thefts. The result was a spike in the number of reported car thefts.
In 2010, there were 769 thefts reported, but by 2011, the number had risen to 1,026 - a 33 percent hike.
“The numbers spiked in the latter part of 2010,” Romero said, “and continued to go up in all of 2011.”
In April 2012, funding was restored to rehire police officers, and the department’s specialized crime units were reactivated.
“We started up special operations and have seen significant reductions in all crime,” he said, including car thefts.
For 2012, there 686 car thefts reported, a drop of about 35 percent.
The trend is continuing for the first quarter of 2013. According to statistics supplied by the department, there were 161 car thefts in the first three months of 2013, a 13 percent decrease from the first three months of 2012.
Romero attributes the drop to a more focused approach to crime prevention.
“We are able to concentrate on specific crimes,” he said. He said the auto fraud task force, set up in 2003, was also instrumental in reducing the number of cars reported stolen.
“People would report the car stolen to get out from under a big payment,” he said, noting that people would trash their cars and then junk them somewhere then report them stolen. Then they’d collect on the insurance money. After police cracked down on that practice, he said, “people became more leery of reporting their cars stolen.”
At the tow lot at Sheehan’s, several of the dozens of cars in storage there are in various states of disrepair. One had its engine removed. Another had all four wheels taken, and it was left on milk crates.
Still others simply had the ignition popped.
“Sometimes they just take them for a joyride,” Cyr said.
Others had the airbags stolen.
In a new wrinkle, he explained, car thieves have taken to stealing Dodge Grand Caravans and using them as rolling storage vehicles for stolen items. Two of them were parked at the Sheehan’s lot, their back seats removed or folded down. The ignition had been popped but otherwise the vans weren’t too seriously damaged.
The thieves apparently fill them with stolen car parts, drive them somewhere, and then dump them when they are done.
Romero confirmed that 75 percent of stolen cars are recovered and that they are usually older-model Hondas, because the parts are all interchangeable. While there are identification numbers on the parts, they are often sanded away or the part, such as an airbag, is impossible to view because it is covered once installed.