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High-tech gadgets help police nab S.J. auto thieves

By Chuck Carroll
Mercury News


Three young men who are part of a ring believed to have a strong appetite for stealing high-end cars are in custody today, thanks to an onboard tracking system, an increasingly popular service that cops say is leading to a growing number of busts.

The men had been under suspicion for stealing cars for some time, but it was a call from and ATX operator to the San Jose police that led to the arrests of Damandeep Rehal, 23, his 17-year-old brother, whose name was not released because of his age, and Jaime Moreno, 26, all of San Jose, said Detective Marc Hinch of the California Highway Patrol.

Hinch and other members of the Regional Auto Theft Task Force believe they are among at least 15 members of a theft ring that may be responsible for stealing more than 50 cars, nearly all of them from San Jose. The break could lead to further arrests and further charges against the men who were arrested.

``They cruise around in the morning looking for cars that are warming up, and its very easy to tell because they can see the exhaust,'' Hinch said, adding that this type of theft rises dramatically in the cooler months. Such thefts are on pace to more than double last year's total.

`People just don't get it,'' added San Jose police Lt. Diane Urban, who heads the city's auto crime unit. ``It's just not a very good idea to leave your car warming up in the driveway.''

Another favorite place to swipe idling cars is the corner convenience store. This gang and other car thieves are also known to break into cars to get the valet keys, then drive off. It is illegal to leave a vehicle running unattended.

Hinch said the group hit this week is known to like expensive cars, which they drive around for a few days before cleaning them out of any valuables and then abandon. As a group, they are also known to favor crystal methamphetamine, mail theft and identity fraud, he said.

``Some of them are good for two cars a week,'' said Hinch, who added that drivers should be aware there's no need to warm up cars any longer, especially in the Bay Area's mild climate.

San Jose police reported that they arrested the two young men Tuesday after ATX (an `OnStar' type tracking company) contacted them to say they had located a stolen silver four-door Mercedes near Race Street and Lincoln Avenue.

The car was tracked to the area of Senter Road and Capitol Expressway. The two occupants sped off and drove south on Highway 101 when they saw the police. But thanks to the global positioning system in the car, which was being monitored by ATX, the police didn't have to give chase.

``We like the newfangled gadgets,'' said San Jose Police Lt. Diane Urban, who leads the city's auto crimes unit.

The BMW was again located near Branham Lane and Monterey Highway, but the pair sped off again. At Coty Way and Rosenbaum Avenue, police found the vehicle parked and abandoned, but police found and arrested the older Rehal brother and Moreno without incident in a neighboring apartment complex.

This morning, police picked up Rehal's younger brother in a stolen silver BMW 520i in south San Jose. That car contained several keys to other cars as well as stolen mail, Hinch said.

Police say they have seen an increase in tips that lead to the recovery of stolen cars and sometimes the arrest of suspects because of the onboard tracking systems. With the increasing popularity of the services, Urban said, San Jose police are probably averaging one such call per week.

In addition to victims losing their cars, money, other property and time, the sheriff's department is alerting residents to the fact that under the California Vehicle Code, it is illegal to leave a vehicle running unattended.

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