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    TX: Pickups stolen here used for immigrant smuggling, author

    Pickups stolen here used for immigrant smuggling, authorities say
    Dozens of trucks taken from Austin parking lots have been recovered in South Texas.

    By Tony Plohetski
    AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Anthony Brewster walked out of a South Austin club shortly after 2 that morning in April and found an empty spot where he'd parked his heavy-duty Ford pickup hours earlier.

    Brewster said an Austin police officer "knew right away" where his 2005 F-250 was headed: Smugglers would use it to bus undocumented immigrants from Mexico into the United States.

    "What he said happened to it is what happened," Brewster said. "He was right on."

    Authorities say Brewster's truck is among several dozen in recent months that have been snatched from Austin parking lots — movie theaters, shopping centers and nightclubs have been the scenes of such crimes — and recovered in South Texas or along the border with evidence of human smuggling.

    The popularity of the Ford F-250 and F-350 series for such operations emerged several years ago in Houston and San Antonio but began reaching Austin this spring, officials said.

    Authorities said the trucks are ideal for such crimes because they are easy to take — they weren't made with the same security devices as other vehicles until a couple of years ago — and are able to haul loads of people without drawing the notice of police.

    "Since they are heavy-duty, it may seem like they aren't carrying much weight, when in fact there are people stacked up in the bed of the pickups or in the cabs," said Texas Department of Public Safety Maj. Jesse Flores, who oversees the agency division that investigates such thefts.

    Authorities said the trucks also can navigate rocky South Texas terrain far from highways and out of the sight of border patrol agents.

    Austin police began tracking the number of stolen Ford trucks recovered in South Texas and along the border April 1 after noticing the frequency with which they were being found in the region.

    Since then, they have documented 94 thefts of such trucks that they believe were used for smuggling, 78 of which were recovered in South Texas or with evidence of smuggling crimes, said Cmdr. Michael Nyert, who supervises the department's auto theft division. The other 16 trucks have not been found, but police think they were used for smuggling because they were stolen from areas that smugglers have targeted before.

    Nyert said that evidence includes the removal of a back seat to fit more people and the placement of wood blocks under truck springs to make heavy loads easier to handle.

    In other cases, drivers of such trucks have led South Texas police in high-speed chases and been found with undocumented immigrants when they're finally stopped.

    "If we can just get information out to folks who have these F-250s and F-350s, not only can you prevent yourself from being a victim, your vehicle won't be used in other crimes," Nyert said.

    He suggested that owners of such trucks buy steering wheel locks or devices that disable trucks unless proper keys are used to start them.

    Ford initially didn't outfit models with anti-theft systems in which a computer chip in the truck must match the key, saying it would make key duplication costly for owners. The company began doing so in 2008, according to Ford officials.

    According to Austin police statistics, the theft of Ford trucks in the past two years has outpaced Chevrolets and Dodges, which also remain popular among thieves. This year, the F-250 model has been stolen more than the F-150 or F-350.

    Although they are placing more attention on the truck thefts, Austin police said the pickups represent only a fraction of the nearly 1,600 vehicles stolen since April 1.

    Honda Civics and Accords continue to be the most popular car among Austin thieves, who strip them and resell their parts, police said.

    Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia, chairman of the Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, said he began hearing from other police departments about the increase in thefts of certain trucks, particularly F-250s and F-350s, for human smuggling a couple of years ago.

    Those departments were applying for state grants to pay for special operations to combat the thefts, Garcia said.

    He said more populated areas probably have been targeted because stolen trucks can be more difficult to spot among thousands of other vehicles. He said that in some cases, thieves can get hundreds of miles away before the trucks are reported stolen.

    "It is widely accepted and widely known that these trucks were targeted," Houston police Lt. Scott Dombrowski said. "If you had a Ford F-250 and it wasn't locked, they were stealing the heck out of them. And even if they were locked, they were still stealing them."

    According to Houston police statistics for September, the most recent data available, 172 Ford trucks were stolen in that city, about 110 of which were Ford F-250s and F-350s. The department did not have statistics on how many were linked to human smuggling.

    In South Texas, law officers started seeing an increase in the number of Ford pickups stolen from other cities and used for smuggling a couple of years ago.

    "It's a big thing," Frio County Sheriff Lionel Trevino said. "I can't give a ballpark figure (on how many deputies have recovered) because there are so many."

    Trevino said deputies have begun monitoring such trucks for suspicious activity, frequently running their license plate numbers to see if the truck was reported stolen and to make sure the numbers match the truck.

    McMullen County Chief Deputy Sheriff William Ainsworth said that in recent months, he has noticed that many of the trucks recovered in his patrol area were from Austin.

    In addition to recovering the trucks, Ainsworth said, he has seen wallets and insurance cards with Austin addresses tossed along highways. He said he also has been involved in pursuits with trucks from Austin.

    "Nine times out of 10, they either take off and run through a fence and go as far as they can go until they run into a creek or get stuck," Ainsworth said. "When you turn on the lights, the chase is on."

    Nearly two weeks after his pickup vanished, Brewster got a call from the Frio County sheriff's office in Pearsall, about 100 miles north of Laredo.

    Brewster, who lives in Spicewood, said the truck had its back seat ripped out and seat belts cut away.

    He had it towed to Marble Falls and repaired.

    "You feel violated," he said. "You feel like you don't want it back. It made me want to sell the truck and get a new one, but, unfortunately, I'm in no position to do that.

    "But it's not the same truck anymore," he said.

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  2. #2
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    Heavy-duty truck owners see thefts spike
    Associated Press
    Dec. 14, 2009, 7:11AM

    AUSTIN — Austin is tracking the theft of heavy-duty Ford pickups in what police believe are links to illegal immigrant smuggling.

    Investigators say increased use of Ford F-250 and F-350 trucks for such crimes emerged several years ago in Houston and San Antonio but began reaching Austin this spring.

    Austin police on April 1 began tracking the number of stolen Ford trucks recovered in south Texas and along the Mexican border. Police documented 94 thefts believed linked to human smuggling.

    Commander Michael Nyert says 78 of the vehicles were recovered in south Texas or with evidence of smuggling, such as no back seat.

    Department of Public Safety Maj. Jesse Flores says the trucks may seem like they aren’t carrying much, but “there are people stacked up in the bed of the pickups or in the cabs.

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