Detroit cops: Car thefts down since city banned towing firm

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Erin Reed, a city of Detroit employee,  prepares a car for towing at a gas station on Van Dyke in Detroit on April 26. Detroit police officials credit a sharp decline in auto thefts to the city banning a company from the towing rotation and assuming most towing duties.

Detroit — Auto thefts in the city have declined sharply over the past two years, according to police statistics — a decrease Detroit police officials attribute to the city banning a company from the towing rotation and assuming most towing duties.

From January-March 2017, before city officials suspended Nationwide Recovery Inc. from the police towing rotation, police officials say there were 1,987 auto thefts in Detroit. Nationwide was suspended in July 2017. From January-March 2019, there were 1,379 auto thefts, a 31% drop, according to police data.

“DPD understands that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation," Detroit deputy corporate counsel Chuck Raimi said in a statement. "But since Nationwide's activities were shut down, DPD has noted a measurable reduction in auto thefts."

In a 2017 lawsuit filed in Wayne Circuit Court, the city accused Nationwide of running a stolen vehicle ring, although company attorney Marc Deldin pointed out that the presiding judge dismissed the complaint three months ago.

Citing what it called longstanding problems in the police towing process, the city on Oct. 1 took over some of the tow rotations.

"We haven't done anything differently, other than get rid of certain tow companies and take over towing — and, then, magically, our car thefts go way down," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. "I can't think of any other explanation why they're down."

City officials alleged in their lawsuit that Nationwide was part of an "elaborate" stolen vehicle scam, although Judge Robert Colombo ruled that city attorneys had failed to prove the allegation.

"That case is over," Deldin said last week. "The judge determined the city couldn't establish that Nationwide was engaged in auto theft, and Nationwide prevailed. So to say Nationwide was stealing cars is not a proper allegation for the city to make."

Deldin also pointed out that city officials in 2017 made the same theft claims against Nationwide in a reply to a federal lawsuit that was filed by the company. In its suit, Nationwide claimed the city had improperly removed it from the towing rotation. Under threat of sanctions, the city withdrew the theft allegations. The federal suit is ongoing.

Raimi replied: "It is true that Judge Colombo ruled that the city did not prove that Nationwide's owner was aware of his employees colluding with car thieves.

“However, evidence was introduced in the Nationwide (case) showing that at least one (now former) employee of Nationwide had for months in 2017 been exchanging text message communications with a known car thief,” Raimi said. "Judge Colombo determined that this former employee was paying car thieves for the location of stolen vehicles.”

In his ruling on the circuit court lawsuit, Colombo said the evidence showed Nationwide's owner and employees had received tips from car thieves about where to pick up stolen vehicles, although the judge said the city hadn't proven its allegation that Nationwide had conspired with the crooks.

But the judge in his written opinion also made several findings about Nationwide, Highland Park police and Wayne County sheriff's officials for the way they handled stolen vehicles in Detroit. Colombo entered an injunction barring Nationwide from working with Wayne County sheriff’s deputies to impound cars in the city. 

“Colombo found that Nationwide was improperly working with the Wayne County Sheriff to allow Nationwide to recover stolen vehicles in a fashion which precluded any investigation of the underlying theft,” city attorney Raimi said. “DPD was not able to do any investigative work and, in some cases, important evidence was lost or the chain of custody was lost because DPD was not involved in the recovery.”

Wayne County sheriff's spokeswoman Pageant Atterberry did not reply to a request for comment.

Craig said since the city became involved in the towing process, "It set an appropriate tone, an ethical tone. It sends the message that the kind of nonsense that went on before won't be tolerated."

Colombo's 49-page opinion offers a glimpse into the problems that have dogged Detroit's towing process. Among the judge's conclusions:

  • "The Detroit Police Department ... learned that up until Nationwide's suspension on July 19, 2017, Nationwide was recovering (stolen) vehicles at an alarming rate under highly questionable circumstances," Colombo wrote. "Vehicles were recovered before the owners knew of the theft or reported the vehicle stolen (and) Nationwide was recovering significantly more newer models than other tow companies."
  • Nationwide drivers and Wayne County sheriff's deputies didn't follow Detroit police officers' instructions to hold vehicles that were involved in crimes to be processed for evidence. "Nationwide ... fails to understand that it is tampering with evidence, that evidence may be lost, that the chain of custody is lost, and this could have a detrimental affect on investigating car theft cases," Colombo wrote.
  • "Nationwide was recovering vehicles without the presence of a police officer, contrary to DPD rules," the judge wrote.
  • The judge said Nationwide overcharged citizens for towing and storage fees, and then failed to promptly notify vehicle owners their property had been impounded. "The impact is significant to the owners of the vehicles because the later they are notified, the more the storage fees accrue," Colombo said.

In his ruling, Colombo also discussed the 2018 theft of a new truck from a Fiat Chrysler storage facility on Detroit's east side. The judge provided details about the truck's recovery that differ from what Highland Park officials told The News in response to a 2018 Freedom of Information Act request.

"Nationwide towed a new Dodge Ram truck with (Highland Park Sgt. James) McMahon as the recovering officer," Colombo wrote. "It had been stolen from the Chrysler/Fiat storage yard. Chrysler/Fiat did not immediately discover it was taken from its large inventory of vehicles in the storage yard. Nationwide intended to auction it and publish notice in the Detroit Legal News.

"Highland Park, without any legal authority, took the vehicle out of the auction and requested Nationwide give it the vehicle," Colombo wrote. "Nationwide complied.  Highland Park converted the vehicle to its own use."

On Oct. 9, 2018, The News sent a FOIA request to Highland Park officials seeking information about "any 2018 Chrysler trucks being used by any of your police officers or anyone affiliated with your police department and/or city."

City attorney Kathy Ramsey denied the request on Oct. 30, 2018, because, she wrote, "the City’s Police Department was unable to locate the records you requested."

In his ruling, Colombo wrote: "Ultimately, Highland Park returned the vehicle to Chrysler/Fiat."

Highland Park spokeswoman Marli Blackmon declined to comment.

McMahon is a defendant in multiple lawsuits alleging that the officer illegally seized people’s property and forged court documents on behalf of the company.

Because of all the problems, which Colombo said were "deeply troubling," in February he granted Detroit officials' request to bar Nationwide from impounding stolen or suspected stolen vehicles in the city on behalf of Wayne County sheriff's deputies or anyone deputized by the sheriff's office.

"The claim is that these Wayne County Sheriff deputies are interfering with the investigation of car theft in Detroit," the judge wrote. "This court agrees."
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN