Car thieves smell a RATT

Car thieves smell a RATT – San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force

Steven J. Casey

Early one summer morning in San Diego County, California, an experienced car thief met with two potential buyers from a large car theft ring. Having sold cars to them before, the thief fantasized that if he could establish a working relationship with them, they could be his ticket to the big time.

The three men talked about the deals they had made together. So far, he had sold them a T-bird, a Mustang, an Explorer, and a Bronco. Bragging about his sophisticated techniques, the thief explained that when he steals a car from a driveway or street, he brings along some broken automotive glass and maybe an ignition lock to leave on the ground. It makes the car owner and the police think that an amateur stole the vehicle. However, he told the buyers that he really prefers stealing from dealerships because car dealers usually inventory their vehicles only once a month. By learning the inventory dates, he can hit soon thereafter, knowing that the theft probably will not be reported for the better part of a month.

Imagine the thief’s surprise when the trio arrived at its destination, and he learned the true identities of the two buyers – police detectives on the San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force, known as RATT. This car thief had just been bitten by a RATT.


Auto theft from dealers’ lots, residential driveways, and city streets has been a problem of epidemic proportions in the San Diego area for years. Until recently, law enforcement had not found effective ways to address it.

In the 10-year period from 1983 through 1992, auto theft in San Diego County increased 196 percent, from 12,099 cars stolen in 1983 to 35,923 in 1992. The total dollar loss in 1992 alone reached nearly $210 million. Yet, at the end of that period, all of the police agencies in San Diego County combined still dedicated only 25 detectives to auto theft investigations.

Departments gave auto theft cases low priority, worked such cases only in the reactive mode, and did not provide countywide coordination, perform indepth crime analyses, or conduct long-term investigations. Even when prosecutors convicted car thieves, sentences were light, with auto thieves often sentenced to time only in a local jail.


Formed in mid-1992, the Regional Auto Theft Task Force was designed to respond to the rampant auto theft problem in the San Diego area. Operating under a formal Memorandum of Understanding, the task force brings detectives and prosecutors together to address the auto theft problem. The first coordinated auto theft task force to operate in California, RATT draws its 28 detectives from 16 local, State, and Federal agencies.(1)

The detectives coordinate closely with three prosecutors from the district and U.S. attorney’s offices to develop cases. These attorneys work exclusively on RATT’s cases, providing legal advice, acquiring search warrants, and handling all post-arrest activity. Some cases, of course, warrant more participation than others, but the attorneys supply all necessary legal support of each case, from inception through prosecution.


To fund the task force, motorists in the region pay an additional $1 registration fee per car, as authorized by California law. This fee provides RATT with $1.8 million per year.

The task force also obtained a $318,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant allows RATT to educate vehicle owners about theft prevention and to hire a full-time crime analyst to assist the task force. In addition, the money provides funds for the criminal research division of the San Diego Association of Governments to evaluate and document RATT’s approach and performance.

Results of the evaluation will be used to determine the most effective techniques and to share the information among agencies. One significant byproduct of this information-sharing venture will be an improved computer database that will provide more detailed information to auto theft investigators than is available now.


The task force operates countywide in four teams, each led by a sergeant from one of the participating agencies. The sergeants report to an FBI special agent with extensive experience in auto theft investigation, who directs task force operations from its undercover location in central San Diego County. An executive committee selected by the Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association of San Diego County provides oversight for the task force.

Although task force members must be veteran detectives and make a 2-year commitment to the program, officers regard working on RATT as choice duty. As evidence of this, when one of the original task force detectives received a promotion and had to be replaced, 121 deputies applied for the position.

Task force members must be adept at handling long-term, proactive investigations and informant development, for these are the keys to RATT’s success. Once selected, officers attend a 1-week street survival course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.


Under the RATT concept, investigators combine four main strategies: Theft analysis, maintenance of an intelligence base, active liaison with other law enforcement agencies, and informant development. Theft analysis involves, for example, tracking the locations and types of vehicles stolen and monitoring the known chop shops operating in the area. In addition to using available intelligence resources, such as the California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System and the National Crime Information Center, RATT investigators also rely heavily on the rich resources of the private National Insurance Crime Bureau to maintain an auto theft intelligence base.

Active liaison with all county law enforcement agencies, other local task forces, and area probation and parole officers augments this information pool. Task force members recruit and carefully supervise informants. They attempt to infiltrate car theft rings using informants and undercover tactics to target the leaders of the organizations, rather than merely arrest the low-level offenders after they deliver one stolen car.

Sideline Operations

Auto theft investigations often become linked to investigations of other crimes. For example, stolen cars and drugs often go hand in hand. In addition, criminals often strip stolen cars and sell the parts. As offshoots of stolen vehicle investigations, RATT detectives have arrested a number of gun runners, drug dealers, and chop-shop operators.

Indeed, in 1994, RATT detectives even became chop-shop operators. They ran two car-stripping operations in borrowed warehouses during undercover operations conducted for several months. Their efforts netted 14 thieves and 21 stolen vehicles.

The task force also handles cases of tractor-trailer theft as a subset of its motor vehicle theft casework. RATT’s investigations of stolen tractor-trailers revealed a related crime problem – cargo theft. These crimes involve organized, professional thefts of tractor-trailers, including entire loads of cargo (of any type). Such thefts often do not get reported uniformly, making investigation difficult. For example, in reporting the theft of the tractor-trailer to the police, if the driver does not know the specific cargo in the trailer, it simply gets listed on the theft report as “unknown.”

Once alerted to the problem, RATT investigators hand-searched reports in Chula Vista, National City, and San Diego to determine its extent. They found that such thefts had increased 133 percent between 1989 and 1992, amounting to a $7.1 million loss from 177 cargo thefts. The problem’s severity led RATT to create the Cargo Team, comprising a sergeant and five investigators, to focus on reducing the number of cargo thefts in the area.

For the most part, RATT’s Cargo Team employs the same strategies as the other components of the task force, but with some significant differences. Generally, investigators penetrate cargo theft operations the same way they penetrate auto theft rings – informants, information developed by local police, etc. Money, however, makes the major difference. An undercover investigator can buy a top-quality stolen car for $300 to $400. But for a stolen cargo with a retail value of perhaps $300,000 to $500,000, the cost can be between $10,000 and $20,000. Clearly, that exceeds RATT’s local funding, so the task force secured supplemental funding from the FBI.


From July 1992 to February 1995, RATT’s 28 detectives recovered more than 780 stolen vehicles with a combined worth of well over $6.8 million. Detectives made more than 300 arrests, and the team’s prosecutors achieved a 100-percent conviction rate, with more than one-half the convicted defendants going to prison. The prison sentence for convicted car thieves in the San Diego area now averages more than 3.5 years. Since RATT’s inception, auto theft in San Diego County has dropped 15 percent.

One of RATT’s earliest high-profile targets had been a very successful drug peddler, robber, burglar, counterfeiter, and stolen weapons dealer. He specialized, however, in auto theft, car stripping, and vehicle identification number switching. RATT put him and his two partners – assault weapons suppliers who, when arrested, also were planning to rob an armored car using MAC 11s and a grenade launcher – in State prison after they pleaded guilty to all 51 counts of a grand jury indictment.

According to RATT’s director, many organized crime syndicates also regularly steal cars, often for transport through Mexico to Guatemala and El Salvador. Many of the thieves steal cars in Los Angeles and San Diego and take them through El Paso, Texas, into Mexico. Others go through the San Ysidro, California, port. In San Ysidro, U.S. Customs and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials work with RATT detectives to catch the thieves.

In one such case, two Ukrainian nationals living in Seattle had been shipping stolen cars to Russia through the Port of New Jersey, California. Tired of the hassles of shipping the cars to Russia, the pair decided instead to facilitate sales of stolen cars to Mexican buyers. They shipped seven cars to San Ysidro where – unfortunately for the Ukrainians – the cars arrived at one of several warehouses operated clandestinely by RATT. Hidden sound and video equipment recorded the transaction, and officers immediately arrested the two thieves, whose Federal prosecution is pending.


Auto theft costs American citizens billions of dollars each year in more than just vehicle replacement and insurance payments. Investigation and prosecution expenses also factor into the high price of auto theft.

Expert car thieves work quickly and often move their stolen goods out of the local jurisdiction or even out of the country before owners can notify the police. San Diego County’s Regional Auto Theft Task Force provides a way for local, State, and Federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to take RATT-sized bites out of the stolen vehicle trade.


The following agencies participate in RATT: the California Highway Patrol, Border Division; the Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Coronado, El Cajon, Escondido, La Mesa, National City, Oceanside, and San Diego Police Departments; the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department; the U.S. Customs Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the National Insurance Crime Bureau; the San Diego County district attorney’s office; and the U.S. attorney’s office.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group