More teen-agers today are going places -- in your car A 'typical' outing: 5 guys, 5 cars, 5 hours


Some people trade in their cars every year. Weedy and his pals liked to trade them in every hour or so.

Take last July 2. Weedy, Shorty, Jamie, Reggie and Troy went out to celebrate Shorty's 16th birthday. Around 3 p.m., Jamie got a green 1988 Honda Accord on a street in West Baltimore; a little later, Shorty picked up a black 1988 Ford Probe at Mondawmin Mall. When the Honda ran out of gas, everybody piled into the Probe and rode out to Columbia Mall.

On the mall lot, they picked out a white 1991 Acura Legend. But while getting it started, they blew the fuse to the tape deck.

What's a birthday drive without music? They cruised around the mall until they spotted a nice 1989 Jeep Cherokee, a gold-on-black Limited Edition model. They took the Jeep and headed back to the city.

The evening ended about 8 p.m., when they picked up a silver 1991 Probe on the street near Morgan State University. But as they drove away, they realized they had been spotted. So they jumped from the new Probe, ran around the block to the Cherokee, and took that to a friend's house to finish the party.

Five guys; five cars; five hours. A typical run for Baltimore's teen-age car thieves, according to both the teen-agers and the police who struggle to keep up with them.

"I was going out to steal cars every day, every other day," says Weedy, a tall, handsome 18-year-old whose career claim of 500 cars stolen is described by police as extremely modest. "Sometimes we'd be three or four carloads, and the majority would come back with their own car."

If the police adage is right, that auto theft is the kindergarten of crime, then Maryland has a bumper crop rising to the upper grades.

Vehicle theft has more than doubled statewide in the last decade, reaching more than 35,000 last year -- one every 15 minutes. While professional "chop shops" that break cars up and sell them for parts account for some thefts, young thieves looking for temporary wheels account for the overwhelming majority in Maryland and especially in Baltimore. More than 70 percent of cars stolen in Maryland last year were recovered, most within hours or a few days; in Baltimore the recovery rate is nearly 90 percent.

Using a screwdriver or the slightly more sophisticated devices called a "slim jim" or "mystery tool," an experienced thief can get inside most locked cars in a few seconds. With a $7 body shop tool called a dent puller, it requires less than a minute to yank out the ignition. A quick twist of the screwdriver will unlock the steering wheel and automatic transmission and start the car.

With a little hands-on instruction, these skills can be acquired at an early age. The peak ages for auto-theft arrest in the state are 15 and 16. Ten children aged 9 and under were caught stealing cars last year; police occasionally catch a thief sitting on telephone books to see over the dashboard.

"In my neighborhood, just about everyone's doing it," said a veteran 19-year-old car thief from Highlandtown who prefers to be identified by his graffiti tag, Vesal. ("Only a few people will know that's me," he said. "And they're all in jail." Vesal himself is doing a year on work-release.)

"There are generations of car thieves," Vesal said. "A brother would do it, pass it to his little brother. He'd teach a friend, and the friend would teach his little brother."

"I knew a good 50 people who stole cars, probably more," said Weedy, who also declined to be identified by his full name. He used to live in the Walbrook neighborhood of West Baltimore; currently he wears an extra-large navy jumpsuit labeled "Baltimore County Detention Center."

"Some people might not believe it but stealing cars is like a drug," Weedy said. "Once you get started, it's hard to stop."

In Weedy's case, police confirm the diagnosis.

"Weedy got the reputation for being the No. 1 car thief in the Northwest District," said Sgt. Everett Fullwood of the Baltimore police auto theft unit. "He'd ride up to Walbrook High School to pick up his girl friend and I'd go looking for him with a description of the car he'd stolen. But I wouldn't find him, because meanwhile he would have stolen another car."

"A status symbol"

Weedy is black; Vesal is white. They are from different neighborhoods, but the stories they tell are almost identical. Both are 10th-grade dropouts and walking data-bases of a specialized kind of information: how to pop the wing window of a four-door Toyota so that it doesn't shatter; how to get around the alarm on an Acura; how to smash the steering column on a General Motors car to get at the wheel lock.

Perhaps the hardest question for them to answer is why.

Sometimes, it's true, for money. Weedy says he would sell a radio or a pair of tires from a stolen car if someone asked for them, although he never made it a habit. Some teen-agers will "sell" a stolen car for $20 or $50 to a friend, or to a burglar or drug dealer who wants a car that won't be traced to him.

Often teen-agers steal cars to avoid taking a bus -- to go to school, to visit a friend, to go shopping. Shorty's 16th-birthday spree last July, he told police, began when he "got tired of walking" down Liberty Heights Avenue in the hot sun. He was carrying his dent puller in a brown paper bag, so he simply looked over Mondawmin Mall's selection and chose the black Probe, because the window is easy to "flex," or pry open.

Mostly, it seems, they steal for prestige. Carmakers spend millions of dollars a year to persuade consumers that driving the right car will win them admiration, success, sexual conquest. Plenty of teen-agers get the message and drive the cars. They omit only the step of purchasing them first.

"It was a status symbol," said Vesal, a husky young man with light brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. "You'd get pretty popular. When you go in someone's driveway, and they're in their house with the light on, and you steal the car and they don't hear a thing, people are impressed."

Sometimes, Weedy said, he used the cars to try to pick up girls, driving his latest acquisition to Western High School at the end of the school day or to O'Dells, a North Avenue nightclub, at closing time.

To impress, it was necessary to steal sporty models.

"Corvettes, Trans Ams, Camaros, Cherokees," Vesal said. He and a buddy would sometimes begin an evening by taking an unlikely car -- a station wagon, say -- in their own neighborhood. "Then we'd take it to the county, steal a car for him and a car for me, and drive around," he said. Baltimore County had "better cars, I guess," he said.

"It had to be kind of slick," Weedy said. "It couldn't be no ugly

car. It had to be something someone would look at," he said.

His favorites were certain Mazdas, Toyotas, Hondas, Chevy Blazers, and especially Acura Legends.

"I couldn't walk by a Legend," Weedy said. "If I saw a Legend, I had to take it."

"Now I know better"

Debbie Kurlis is fond of sporty cars, too. She likes Camaros.

A Perry Hall woman who works in telephone sales, Ms. Kurlis saved until she was 30 to buy her first one -- a burgundy 1986

Camaro Z-28. She was 32 when last Oct. 18 she walked out the door of her town house to go to work and saw her parking space vacant.

"My first reaction was, 'What did I do with my car?' I thought, 'You're not awake, Deb, it's 6:30.' Then it hit me, and I yelled for my husband," Ms. Kurlis recalled.

They found her car the next day a couple of miles away in another town house development. It cost $875 to put the ignition back together and repair interior damage.

"It was a nasty feeling that someone could come right up to your front door and take your property," she said. "I got paranoid." She would start her morning by looking out the front door for the Camaro.

When she looked out May 13, it was gone again.

This time she had to wait a little longer. Four days later, when the phone rang, it was the Montgomery County police. The car was " outside a Silver Spring high-rise. "There's some damage," the officer said.

Such as: half the removable roof gone; three days' worth of rain on the floor; scratches and chipped paint on the front spoiler, both side mirrors and the right-front tire; rear windshield wiper torn off; battery dead. Total repairs: $1,460.

The police actually charged someone with the first theft, something that happens statewide in fewer than 1 in 5 reported car thefts. For Ms. Kurlis, that has meant two days off work so far to appear in court. A jury trial is scheduled for June 17.

"My car is a prize possession," she said. "They can't take my house. This is the biggest thing they can take from me."

Now her Camaro is parked out front with a $38 bar lock on the steering wheel. "After the first time, I thought, 'What's the chance of having it happen to me again?' Now I know better," she said.

Timi Newland, manager of the Western Auto store on Greenmount Avenue in Waverly, is selling a lot of those bar locks, often known as "clubs" after a common brand name. "We're selling 15 or 20 a week, at least," he said.

Like most auto parts stores, his sells dent pullers as well. He keeps them in a locked case and refuses to sell them to teen-agers unless they show a purchase order from a body shop, he said.

"They come in groups, especially Friday and Saturday nights. When a kid comes in wearing these $200 tennis shoes, you know he's not going out to do body work," he said.

Often, a thwarted teen-ager will pay an adult in the parking lot a few dollars to buy a dent puller for him. "I try to intimidate the adult. I ask if they know what it's for, and I ask to see their license," Mr. Newland said. Usually, they change their mind.

Despite his personal campaign to discourage the purchase of dent pullers for car theft, Mr. Newland, like several other Baltimore auto store managers, said he had never heard of a city ordinance passed in 1974 and updated in 1985 for that very purpose.

Under the law, the sale of dent pullers, slim jims and other tools that can be used for theft cannot be sold to anyone under 18. For purchasers 18 and over, stores are required to record in a ledger the name, address and "color, sex, approximate height, age and any distinguishing feature."

"Too good to get caught"

If the little-known Ordinance 378 does not seem to have done much to slow teen-age car theft, then neither has the overloaded juvenile justice system. Most juveniles arrested for car theft are released to their parents, because car theft is not a violent crime.

Vesal got caught several times as a juvenile. "They'd let me go home to my mom," he said. "She'd chew me out. I'd stay out of it for a while, but then the bad influences would start again."

Repeat offenders do get sent to juvenile facilities, but if Weedy's experience is typical, that kind of get-tough approach is not necessarily an effective deterrent.

Weedy spent a total of a year in detention off and on, in most of the state's juvenile facilities, for various car thefts and one drug charge. He laughed when asked whether that discouraged him from stealing cars.

"At Hickey [the juvenile detention center in Cub Hill] all we did was talk about how to steal cars," Weedy said. At Hickey, which he calls "kiddie camp," he got tips on Acuras. At Boys Village, in Rockville, he said, "a Chinese kid told me how to do the newer Toyotas."

Afraid of a prison term, many young car thieves quit when they hit their 18th birthday. But some keep at it. Clifton Brown, a 60-year-old Baltimore man, was sentenced a few months ago to five years, one of the stiffest auto theft sentences and one of the oldest car thieves city police could recall.

Brown's thefts included a novel technique, according to Sergeant Fullwood. He would go to a car dealer and ask to test drive a new car. If he was allowed to drive alone, he was gone. If the salesman went for the ride, Brown would drive to Johns Hopkins Hospital, saying his wife was hospitalized and had to approve the purchase. A little while later, police would get a call from a car salesman stranded at the hospital.

Vesal and Weedy were two who didn't stop in time.

"I thought I was too good to get caught," said Vesal. He was spotted by police in December stealing a Corvette from an Essex apartment complex. He got away, as often occurs, because police are reluctant to risk a high-speed chase to catch a car thief. But 45 minutes later, he stopped at a 7-Eleven, and the police pounced.

Weedy awaits his first adult trial. He is being held on $282,000 bail, the value of the sampling of cars he is charged with. Police believe he was part of a group of thieves who discovered that wealthy Greenspring Valley residents often leave the keys in their luxury cars. Since February, the thieves have gotten two $75,000 BMWs, seven Mercedes, an '88 Cadillac Allante

convertible and a '90 Jaguar.

Weedy says he's going straight. "I'm quitting," he said. "I'm in here with guys that are doing two life terms, looking at the death penalty."

When he gets out, he says, he'll get his G.E.D. and look for work. Maybe, he says, he can help in the ongoing battle against auto theft.

"I know all the cars and how to steal them," Weedy said. "I could teach people how to stop it."

Avoiding Car Theft

* Lock your car and take the key. In 20 percent of vehicle thefts, the key is in the ignition.

* Park in a well-lighted and busy area.

* Consider using a "club"-type bar lock on the steering wheel. Some thieves can beat them, but most will avoid taking the extra time.

* Consider using a highly visible alarm system. Again, many thieves will avoid a car that seems protected.

* Drive an old, non-sporty model. Teen-agers won't want it.

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