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Posted on Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 6:05 a.m.

Ypsilanti area sees recent spike in car thefts, police say

By Tom Perkins


Dwight Van Tuyl stands at the spot where his car was stolen earlier this month. Photo by Tom Perkins | For

Dwight Van Tuyl left his Ypsilanti apartment around noon on Nov. 7 to discover his car, parked near the corner of Washington and Emmet streets the night before, was gone.

After checking with area tow companies, he called Ypsilanti Police and confirmed what he suspected - his 2000 Honda Civic had been stolen.

Van Tuyl’s car was one of 15 auto thefts in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township in the first half of November, and police are investigating three more potential cases.

Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township together saw an average of one car theft every other day in 2008.

That rate has doubled this month, and was slightly higher at 20 cars for the month of October. The cars are largely stolen on weekends.

“There has definitely been a big increase in the number of vehicle thefts this month,” Washtenaw County Sheriff Cmdr. Dieter Heren said.

Van Tuyl's Civic eventually surfaced -- completely stripped -- on a street in Detroit on Thursday.

“I’ve lived here for over 10 years and never had anything stolen from me,” he said. “I’m definitely a little more paranoid now.”

Washtenaw County Sheriff's Detective Steve Wallen, who is with the auto theft unit, said two types of thefts are common in the city and township.

One is seen with older model cars like Van Tuyl’s, which are targeted by small-time gangs from Detroit. Because newer model cars have computer chips built into their keys, it’s impossible to steal them without the original key.

But keys can be cut with portable key cutters for the bulk of cars made before 2005. Thieves walk up to a vehicle, look at the VIN on the dashboard, dial it into the cutter and cut a key that will start the car on the spot.

The older model cars are also susceptible to having a screwdriver jammed in the ignition to start it.

As was the case with Van Tuyl’s Civic, there is usually no broken glass around a car in this type of theft.

“These are the people who are making the big money,” Wallen said. “They aren’t just driving it around the corner in Washtenaw County, they’re going down to Detroit and retagging the cars.”

Once in Detroit, the titles are “washed” and the car “cloned.” Ownership of a car can easily be transferred in Michigan by forging a signature on the title, and a fake VIN tag with the number of a car of the same make and model in a different state will replace the VIN tag on the stolen car.

“These guys know what they’re doing,” Wallen said. “They are getting more sophisticated.”

Once a car is cloned - its title washed and altered to match the VIN tag - it looks perfectly legal, even to a police officer.

“If you were an officer behind the car on a traffic stop, the VIN matches, so you’d be like ‘Oh, that car is good to go,'” Wallen said.

Wallen said the people stealing the cars are usually drug addicts who receive roughly $500 per job, which complicates efforts to arrest those ordering the thefts.

In one recent case, the auto theft unit arrested a young woman who admitted she owed a gang a substantial drug debt and was forced to steal cars to pay it off. She is currently in jail and refuses to reveal the gang leaders’ identities, police said.

“More than likely we aren’t going to get someone to squeal because they are too scared,” Wallen said.

Drugs are also the motivating factor behind the second and more common type of theft reported in Ypsilanti Township.

In this scenario, a person addicted to crack who is driving a car owned by a parent or significant other will trade the cars for drugs. When the person who owns the car discovers it’s missing, he or she contacts police, and the person who traded it plays dumb.

“These have nothing to do with making money,” Wallen said. “It’s just that someone wants a rock, and the drug dealer needs something to drive.”

Wallen said the outcome of these cases can be frustrating. If it does come to light a family member traded or stole a car after the auto theft unit worked to recover it, oftentimes no one wants to press any charges.

Wallen said the Sheriff's Department auto theft unit is too small to run sting operations and works mostly in an investigative role. But because of the circumstances of many of the thefts, well over half the cars end up back with the owner.

Still, he advises residents to take precautions. Wallen said the best deterrent is “The Club,” an anti-theft device that locks the steering wheel in place and is tough to saw through.

“If you can’t steer a car, you can’t go anywhere,” he said.

Wallen also recommended global positioning systems, which allows officers to pinpoint what street a car is on. He said it's been his experience that car alarms are ineffective.

“How many times have you heard a car alarm going off and gone and turned up the TV?” he said.

Wallen also suggests keeping keys out of the hands of friends or relatives with substance abuse issues.

“Know who you’re loaning your car to,” he said. “Don’t loan your nephew the car if you know they have a crack problem.”

Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for Reach the news desk at or 734-623-2530.



Sat, Nov 28, 2009 : 10:58 p.m.

AndyYpsilanti...I feel you I really do. But the Ann Arbor news was famous for making sure that it looked like more crime happened in Ypsi. Why would we think that would be any different or forward thinking?


Thu, Nov 26, 2009 : 1:33 a.m.

AndyYpsilanti-Good point on denoting crime from a particular area; A2 & Ypsi, YspiTwnshp. Remember however, "...if it bleeds it leads..."


Wed, Nov 25, 2009 : 11:50 a.m.

One question: Why do all the crime stories about Ypsi appear on the front page of, but I have to go to the crime section to read about all the crimes in A2? And, if we were to compare the CITY of A2 with ONLY THE CITY of Ypsilanti, not the township, who seems to have more crime? There were six car break-ins, two arsons, a sexual assault and several other crimes in A2 Nov 1-7, where is the front page story about that? To be sure, there is a crime problem in Ypsi. But there are crime problems everywhere in this economy. I think we could use to be more vigilant as neighbors in Ypsi and everywhere. But in Ypsi, it would also help if we weren't lumped in with the townships and the crime problems there. Ypsi is not some criminal's paradise, but you wouldn't know it from the rash of negative articles.


Wed, Nov 25, 2009 : 11:22 a.m.

This is right outside of my apartment in Ypsi, and I don't fear for the safty of my car or myself. You could have a car stolen just as easily in A2 or any other city. Matt V, I wonder if you, like many other Ypsi detractors in A2, have ever even been to Ypsilanti.


Wed, Nov 25, 2009 : 4:43 a.m.

Wow! The sheriff's department sure seems to know how these thiefs operate, but helpless to stop them? Why do we pay vast sums for car insurance? Is it ALL for medical and accidents? What about license & registration fees to the State, and still, there isn't enough money to assist local police depts when a "ring" of thiefs enter a community? Oh so the consumer invest in a GM car with On-Star or Lojack so if stolen it can be retreived, but will the insurance monopoly, err...companies substanially reduce my rates? NOT! Oh, and he still recommends the Club? Even they have stopped advertising on late night TV. For the second highest purchase that a consumer makes after a house, you'd think there would be more in the offering to protect against its loss.

Tom Perkins

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 7:33 p.m.

Lorie and Matt Van Auker, I'm putting together an article on the rise in auto thefts in Ann Arbor. Check back sometime in the next week.

Dave in Ypsilanti

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 5:02 p.m.

Dont loan your nephew the car if you know they have a crack problem. That might be the best advice I've ever seen.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 4:56 p.m.

UMMM...Edward in just the comment prior to your linked to an article that debunks the VIN/Key cutter assertations of Detective Wallen. There are ways to utilize the VIN and there are ways to get your hands on a key cutter and cut a key, but the 2 methods are not part of the same process. Finally the knowledge is already out there, you are not telling criminals anything new or that they could not easily get their hands on. You should be taking this not as an education for them but as an education for YOU.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 4:35 p.m.

thanks for explaining to everyone how easy it is to walk right up get the VIN number and clone a key with a portable key cutter. In this economy I am sure a few more upstart home based business minded peoples just needed an A-Ha idea to get the ball rolling. Why don't you just have a link to a pdf file so people can download the how to step by step instructions including where to purchase materials needed and some possible ways to find your customers (scrapers, gangbangers)


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 2:22 p.m.

"But keys can be cut with portable key cutters for the bulk of cars made before 2005. Thieves walk up to a vehicle, look at the VIN on the dashboard, dial it into the cutter and cut a key that will start the car on the spot." Does anyone know of a brand of car for which this is true? I doubt it. The VIN is simply a serial number for the car and would have no relationship to what the key codes for the locks on the car would be. Now, probably the manufacturer would keep a record of what the codes are for each car, and that information might be obtainable from the manufacturer through a dealership's service or parts department, but other than that I don't think having the VIN number is going to help you one bit. In addition, I'm sure a dealership is not going to contact the manufacturer and get the key codes for you, unless they're darned sure you own the car. Oh, and you need two keys of course. One to open the door and another for the ignition switch. That said, it's pretty easy to pick locks...


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 2:02 p.m.

there are some interesting statistics about crime and say Zip code 48197 (ypsi west of the river) and say Ann Arbor 48104... According to city reports, the risk for property crime (like the crime reported here), is LESS in 48197 than it is in 48104... To be fair, person crime is worse in 48197 than 48104 but my point is that I would LOVE to see somebody do some qualified analysis of what the crime risk really is because I think Ypsilanti, particularly in the city itself, do better than one might think based on the attitudes of the comments I've seen on this blog. Anybody? Anybody? care to actually put factual information out there?


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 1:58 p.m.

i had my car stolen the policr made a report and i did not hear any thing from them until i called one day and was told i was not the only one who had there car stolen i asked about cameras that may have a clue both at the complex where it was taken and at a near by gas station because there was no gas in the car i was reminded again that i was not the only one to bad there is no place to go to regain transportation and yes i was suppose to get insurance the next day what a scam

Angry Sasquatch

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 11:55 a.m.

That's awesome, Vernice. I bet your vehicle is eyed by many thieves. I wonder what the weather was like when the photo above was taken. Dwight Van Tuyl is confusing me with that hat while wearing shorts and rolled up sleeves.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 10:57 a.m.

I've been putting the Club on my '89 Ford Festiva for years, and there hasn't been one attempt to steal it. It's pretty obvious the Club is effective. If it wasn't, right now a dirty thief would be enjoying my Billy Idol album I have in the tape deck.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 10:29 a.m.

I would choose the club even if it slows someone down just a few seconds because maybe the thief will see it and try the next victim,and maybe just maybe the extra few seconds will give me a chance to catch someone in my car with a sawzall or hacksaw.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 10:27 a.m.

Easy solution to this particular technique: put a piece of electrical tape over the VIN, which is often accessible from inside the car on the lower part of the driver's side of the dash. Technically it might be illegal to obscure it, but I've never had a cop look at it. A hidden kill switch wired into an older car is a good idea, too.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 10:20 a.m.

Washtenaw County Sheriff's Detective Steve Wallen, who is with the auto theft unit said "The Club" was an effective tool against car thefts because it disables steering???? REALLY??? Anyone have any background on this detective? It's pretty common knowledge among regular people and especially among criminals that a sawzall or bolt cutter makes short work of these devices by attacking the weakest point. The steering wheel as noted earlier. Even used in conjuction with other devices and alarms they add but a few seconds worth of deterrent. I hate when we hear this kind of useless, feel good nonsense. It's used to tranquilize the sheep not fight crime!


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 10:19 a.m.

Matt - It is okay if you stay away from Ypsi..We are a city that thrives on diversity, and forward thinking. We can only be the change that we want to see in our communities and there are people here that want to see good in the city without being judgmental.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 9:40 a.m.

Hmmm, in the past two weeks Ive woken to (1) my sons van door being opened and his car rummaged through and (2) found my car door open and the glove compartment rummaged through.. I live in Depot Town and consider my neighborhood safe, looks like we need to form some neighborhood watch groups.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 9:29 a.m.

FormerlyAA: Close, but not quite right. "The Club" isn't effective because anyone can easily cut through the car's steering wheel to remove one. Not the steering column. The Club is a waste of money against all but the laziest of thieves. They're really too big to be a good self-defense weapon too. A D-battery "Maglight" aluminum flashlight or 12 inch Crescent wrench kept under the driver's seat will work better for that in my opinion. By the way, even my 1995 Oldsmobile has a "code chip" in each key. I think many General Motors and Ford vehicles used this technology way before 2005.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 8:40 a.m.

The "Club" doesnt work. Thiefs can easliy cut thru your steering columns itself. The "club" does make a nice legal weapon to keep by your side.


Tue, Nov 24, 2009 : 8:38 a.m.

I hate to be a crank here but lumping Ypsi City and the Township together doesn't do either justice. Because the city has its own department and the township goes through the sheriff, really you had to work to do this and yet you separate out Superior Twp and Pittsfield Twp in other articles. Please stop lump the two together just because of the name. The leadership and citizenry in the two places are very different and they have achieved differing results but this paper keeps reporting them as one.