Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Stealing Cars in Chicago during the late 1970s
Fiction Confronts Fact
Despite a number of cultural representations that suggested otherwise, auto theft as it took place during the recent past was more often than not a deadly serious activity. This side of it was forcefully illustrated during Senate testimony given in 1979, when a hooded witness referred to as “John Smith” appeared before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs. Smith was serving a five-year sentence for conspiracy to transport stolen vehicles through interstate commerce, and freely admitted that he had been a member of a ring of forty-five individuals operating in nine states and Mexico. While the witness personally had been responsible for 1,500 auto thefts; some members of the ring had cleared $200,000 a year from its operations. Further, Smith echoed an old theme concerning deterrence: “I have never encountered an automobile locking system that I could not defeat in a very few minutes. I probably never could have gotten into illegal rebuilding if it hadn’t been so easy to change the few vehicle identification numbers now on cars and trucks.”11 Smith went on to outline the techniques and methods of the professional auto thief of the 1970s, including giving details of how he acquired the rosebud rivets that attached VIN plates to the vehicle; the location of “confidential” VIN numbers that manufacturers stamped on frames, marked on inner fenders, and spread on small pieces of paper throughout the vehicles; and how a welding tool could erase motor numbers. Yet as the witness painfully discovered, his attempts to obliterate a motor number was detected by a National Automobile Theft Bureau (NATB)-developed infrared camera!
According to Smith, however, key copying proved to be the least destructive and most effective technique to steal a car. He preferred General Motors cars from the 1960s, for these models had the same door and ignition keys. Once the door lock was removed and a dummy put in its place, Smith said he would walk “off to my car, set down and tear the lock apart and read the tumblers in it and cut a key for it. It would take about 30 seconds . . . ”12 To counter the ease in which he did his work, Smith stated that all manufacturers had to do was make their lock components out of harder metal.
Key cutting, according to the witness, was the “blue collar” approach to auto theft. He also had a “white collar technique.” After finding the desired car, a thief would ascertain from a license plate holder or dealer sticker where the car was purchased. The next step was to use the license plate number to contact the department of motor vehicles, which without checking the identity of the caller would furnish the name and address of the owner. The thief would then wait until about 4:30 p.m. when dealer staff was always at their busiest. Posing as a locksmith, the would-be thief would state that a woman shopper has lost her keys at the mall. Hurried, the dealer employee, without questioning, gave this “locksmith” the key code, and the thief then had all the necessary key codes and tools from a product purchased at a business that sells repossessor supplies! It was a clean and easy way to do business, quite white collar in style.
Smith’s testimony was one important source used to shed light on the activities of the car thief. However, a major aim of the hearings was to uncover information related to criminal organizations of the day, particularly the inner workings of the chop shop. Alex Jaroszewski, at one time a mid-level operative in an extensive Chicago chop shop operation with links to organized crime and in November 1979 in the federal witness protection program, gave valuable testimony on the subject. He was gradually brought into the ring in the 1970s by salvage yard owner Steve Ostrowsky. Over time, Jasoszewski was increasingly given more responsibilities and began to acquire knowledge of the top end of the business, including some of the illegal activities headed by Jimmy, “the Bomber” Catuara. But first Jaroszewski had to get the tools, techniques, shop, and connections with Ostrowsky’s south Chicago salvage yard, where cars were stolen to order, parts selectively taken off the hot cars, and then distributed in an extensive salvage yard network that was connected by private phone lines throughout the Midwest. Jasoszewski later recalled how chopping was done:
First, he [a mechanic] unbolted the front end, which is the entire front section of the car including the fenders and the hood. This is the most valuable part of the car because it is the section most frequently damaged in accidents. The windshield was then cut out and the doors unbolted and removed. Next, the seats were removed. Then, with a torch, he cut the posts which connect the roof to the dashboard and cut through the floor width-wise in the front seat area, enabling him to remove the entire cowl. . . . This left him with the roof section of the car connected to the back end which is often referred to in the salvage business as a rear clip.13
Once the car was dismantled, the usable parts were taken to South Chicago Auto Parts, while the marked frame, engine, transmission, and other components were carted to a crusher to be recycled as scrap iron. It was a profitable activity, as these stolen parts were sold at one-quarter or less the price of parts purchased from manufacturers, and availability was almost immediate. The business, however, while on the surface rather tame, had a violent undercurrent. As Jasoszewski discovered one morning at breakfast, not only was his boss an enforcer for the Mob, but so was his boss’ boss, a thug by the name of Billy Dauber, another salvage yard owner. With Chicago police on the take, arrests occurred only rarely, and then release was quick, with the police even returning tools! But the real danger that these chop shop employees faced was from other gang members. In time Ostrowsky, his partner Holzer, shop operator Timmy O’Brien, the big boss Catuara, enforcers Richie Ferraro and Richard Pronger were all murdered in a territorial shakeup. For a time afterwards, Billy Dauber emerged as second in command to Albert Tocco in a new chop shop structure in Chicago.14