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Police cracking down on alleged chop shops amid auto-theft spike

Police cracking down on alleged chop shops amid auto-theft spike

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Only one stolen vehicle led investigators to the east Tulsa car lot, but they walked away with at least two more and four individuals in custody.

The recent “chop shop” bust was the result of ramped-up enforcement efforts amid a local increase in auto thefts that follows a national trend, but headway on this particular case began with a tip on a stolen 1997 Porsche Boxster.

Detectives were searching for the vehicle in late September when they were told it was at the back of the America Auto Mas lot near 17th Street and Memorial Drive, Tulsa Police Department Auto Theft Lt. Chase Calhoun said.

The tip proved true, and they found at least two more confirmed stolen vehicles on the lot: a 2006 GMC Yukon stripped “down to the frame” and a dismantled 2012 Chevrolet Cruze, according to an arrest and booking report.

The owner of the business, Juan Escobar-Mata, told police he had no paperwork for the stolen vehicles but had three mechanics who “had customers that they were doing business for and fixing their vehicles,” the report states.

Neither Escobar-Mata nor his mechanics, Juan Escobar-Hernandez, Adrian Isias-Valencia and Cesar Vega-Quintana, could say from whom or where the vehicles came, police reported.

Each has been charged in Tulsa County District Court with operating a chop shop and three counts of possession of a stolen vehicle. Escobar-Mata and Isias-Valencia each face an additional count of the latter.

Out on bond and reached Friday by phone, Escobar-Mata said he’d have to speak with his legal counsel before commenting.

The number of motor vehicle thefts reported to Tulsa police in one year’s time reached 3,904 in 2020, which is the highest figure recorded for the city in two decades and a year-over-year increase of 28.7%, according to Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report data.

In that same period, the U.S. saw a similar 29% increase in auto thefts, according to FBI UCR data, but Tulsa remains the top city in Oklahoma for auto theft, Calhoun said, and No. 10 in the country. The Sooner State is No. 7 in the country for auto theft, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

It’s common for stolen vehicles to be taken to chop shops to be dismantled and sold for parts, Calhoun said, and the increase in auto thefts over the past year means they are staying particularly busy.

The operations are low risk and high reward, Calhoun said, because a lucrative market exists nationwide and even internationally for some car parts, especially those of older vehicles being exported to other countries or those becoming classics.

Older vehicles can almost double in value once they’re “parted out,” Calhoun said; a car that would sell whole for $3,000 could sell in pieces for $5,000 or $6,000. The process can also make crimes harder to track because, once separated, not every component of a car is identifiable to that particular vehicle.

And if a thief does get caught, the penalties allowed by state law are often merely a hiccup for most engaged in the nonviolent crime, Calhoun said. His unit has dealt with some suspects who have been arrested four or five times within a few weeks, he said.

“It’s just a revolving door,” Calhoun said. “We’ve actually had instances where people are arrested, get out and are caught less than 24 hours later in another stolen car.”

The familiar faces aren’t afraid to share their reasoning with investigators. Calhoun said he often hears: “It’s worth the risk because if we get caught, we probably won’t get in a lot of trouble, but if we don’t get caught we’re going to make a lot of money.”

The frustrating reality is especially unfair for victims, Calhoun said.

For many in the Tulsa area, a personal vehicle is the most expensive thing they own and their only reliable ticket to employment, child care or health care. To walk out one morning and realize that is gone can be devastating, Calhoun said.

That’s why Calhoun, who’s been leading the Auto Theft Unit since June, has made proactive enforcement a priority. The unit has always relied on state law, he said, which allows police to inspect auto yards as they did at America Auto Mas to find additional stolen vehicles, but investigators are now making random rounds more often.

Besides potentially restoring some vehicles to their rightful owners, more checks should yield more arrests, which could yield harsher penalties for repeat offenders, Calhoun said.

Public education has also been an emphasis, he added. Residents should take preventative steps to lessen windows of opportunity for potential car thieves, including not leaving valuables or key fobs in vehicles and simply remembering to lock doors, Calhoun said. Some more advanced approaches involve anti-theft devices such as a kill switch.

“Auto theft doesn’t discriminate,” he said, noting that his unit works cases for vehicles of all price tags and victims all over the city.

“Wherever there’s an opportunity, criminals will take advantage of it,” he said.

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Staff Writer

I write because I care about people, policing and peace, and I believe the most informed people make the best decisions. I joined the Tulsa World in 2019 and currently cover breaking news. Phone: 918-581-8455

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