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Why A Missouri Scrap Metal Law Is To Blame For Soaring Car Thefts In Kansas City

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City police arrest a woman in a stolen Cadillac Escalade. Car thefts in Missouri have skyrocketed following a change in scrap yard laws in 2012.

While property crime has mostly been going down over the last decade, one kind has spiked in Missouri.

Auto thefts are up. Way up. “Missouri is a leader, unfortunately in the nation in terms of auto theft,” says Cpl. Nate Bradley with the Missouri Highway Patrol.

How bad is it?

In Kansas City, police say, auto thefts are up 20 percent in the last year and up by a third over the last six.

In just the last 30 days, KCPD has taken 92 stolen car reports just in the East Patrol Division.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Cpl. Nate Bradley of the Missouri Highway Patrol spends much of his time looking for car thieves and stolen cars. Here he helps Independence police identify what is left of a stolen pickup truck.

This year the National Insurance Crime Bureau put St. Joseph and Springfield in its top ten auto theft cities.

Bradley spends much of his time hunting auto thieves and stolen cars. "If they're stealing the car to provide transportation for themselves, that's one kind of bad guy. Another kind of bad guy is going to steal it and sell it for scrap,” he says.

Combine that bad guy with a handful of bad scrap yards, and you get a worsening problem.

"They don't care what's coming in. They don't go out of their way to check and see if a vehicle is stolen. They maybe they skip steps or ignore steps," says Eric Anderson, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau. NICB is an insurance industry group created to track down all kinds of fraud. 

How did this happen? Some in law enforcement quietly suggest the Missouri General Assembly is to blame.

In 2012, the law was changed so that anyone could sell a vehicle more than ten years old to a scrap dealer even if they didn't have the title.

Bradley says unscrupulous tow truck operators preyed on broken down cars on the side of the highway. Before the owner could return with help, the car was gone and on its way to scrap yard where it would be shredded with no way to identify it.

"Furthermore, even if we could identify it, what are you going to do with the pieces? You can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again," Bradley says.

Most scrapped cars fetch $200 to $500. It doesn't seem like much, but for those willing to work, there can be money in it.

Take the case of Peggy Hennon who ran Peggy's Tow in Jackson County. In three years, she made $1.6 million scrapping cars. "She was a hard worker with a can-do attitude," says Bradley. She served three years in prison after being convicted in federal court of income tax evasion.

But retiring Rep. Kevin Engler from Farmington, who wrote the legislation says he put safeguards into the law. People who scrap a car must show ID and fill out a state form. The cars must be inoperable.

Engler says folks in rural Missouri needed an easy way to scrap, say, a 30-year-old pickup rusting on a farm, and at the time, the Missouri Highway Patrol didn't oppose the bill. 

Engler's advice to the police: "I would tell them to do their job. If they want to know who’s stealing vehicles and they have a suspected scrap yard that is not requiring ID or looking the other way and it’s happening repeatedly by the same people, it’s not too tough to figure out who’s stealing your car.”

But Bradley says crooks will simply take off a wheel and that is enough for some scrap yards to judge the car inoperable. He also says if someone is willing to steal a car off the side of the road, presenting fake ID and lying on a state form at a scrap yard is not a big leap. "So if you look at it from the standpoint of the criminal, he's got a pretty lucrative scheme, and he has very little chance of being held accountable so why not commit the crime," Bradley says.

While there are bad actors in the scrap yard business in Missouri there are companies that go out of their way to try and prevent the scrapping of stolen cars.

One of those is Advantage Metals Recycling on Manchester Trafficway in east Kansas City

The company, part of a national conglomerate, says it spends thousands of dollars a year on a database to check on cars coming in on tow trucks.

"We want to do the right thing, we want to be good stewards n the community. We live in this community and we want to make it a better, safer place to live," says AMR General Manager Joe Covell.

They even work with police to try and catch the car thieves.

“If it’s a stolen vehicle, we’ll contact police. We’ll go ahead and bring them onto the scales so we can get pictures of the tow vehicle and the vehicle and then we wait for police to show,” business manager Chris Perris told KCUR.

Bradley suggests that the change in the scrapping law in Missouri has had something to do with the huge jump in car thefts in Kansas. The crime is up 24 percent in the last five years, according to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. It is plenty easy to grab a car in Missouri and a few minutes later cross into Kansas where communication between departments can be poor.

"Not because we don't get along," Bradley says. "But because the systems and processes for each department can be very different."

The KBI says it does not necessarily agree with that assessment but that the type of property crime is changing. "Criminologists believe motor vehicle theft is replacing burglary as the main crime of opportunity due to a higher monetary return, and lower probability of getting caught, or injured, during the commission of the crime," KBI spokeswoman Mellisa Underwood said in an email to KCUR.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Officer Alexander Skinner patrols Kansas City using a license plate reader program on his laptop to track down stolen cars.

Kansas City police are somewhat confounded by the spike in auto thefts, even though the department is making it a priority. "We have entire squads of property crimes detectives at each station, and that’s one of the main things that they are responsible for,” says KCPD spokesman Sgt. Jake Becchina.

The department has several cars with license plate readers and 17 stationary plate readers around the city. Whenever one of the readers gets a hit on a stolen car, the information pops up on laptops in patrol cars around the city.

One of the people tracking down stolen vehicles is Officer Alexander Skinner, a six-year veteran working out of Central Patrol near Linwood and Troost. "Stolen cars? I don’t like to throw around the word 'epidemic,' but there’s a lot, a lot of them out there.”

On a recent ride-along, Skinner got seven hits in four hours from license plate readers around the city. Police did arrest one woman in a stolen Cadillac Escalade near Independence Avenue and Fuller Street. She also had a gun.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's metro reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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