Cars that die are reborn to live
Date: July 8, 2012
A Sydney gang was so slick at splicing stolen and written-off cars that the law was changed to try to stop them, writes Michael Duffy.
Detective Sergeant Julian Thornton ... two years' work to get a conviction.
Detective Sergeant Julian Thornton just loves motor vehicle crime. Not doing it, but solving it. He worked in the police motor unit for 5½ years then was rotated to homicide. Now he is in professional standards. These are elite postings, but Thornton would cheerfully go back to vehicles.
He is good at vehicles. His last big case was Strike Force Oliveri, which won the investigation of the year award in 2011 from the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (Australasian branch). Eighty-nine vehicles had been sold after being rebirthed by two families in Sydney's south-west. Most were the tradie's favourite, the Toyota Hilux.
Like many rebirthers, the members of the El Masri and the Ismail families specialised. They would buy repairable write-offs from interstate, which is legal, bring them to their Bankstown chop shop, and repair them with parts from vehicles stolen in Sydney. To increase their profits, they would usually start with the basic SR model and convert it into the SR5, which looks like an SR on steroids, with a lot of extra bodywork and chrome, and in 2010 cost $55,500 new compared with a mere $25,090 for the SR.
1) Buy a repairable write- off from another state.
"It's a big price variation and it's pretty easy to do the upgrade," Thornton explains. "There's the same engine and chassis in both models, and the holes for the upgrades are already cut in the chassis. In some cases they were turning the vehicles around in just two days."
It took two years to complete the investigation, with $1.5 million in sales identified and eight people convicted. But - and here's the rub - despite this police success, no one went to jail. Vehicle crime is not taken that seriously by the justice system.
The investigation began in September 2008 when a sharp-eyed employee of the then Roads and Traffic Authority noticed that two rebuilt Hiluxes had been registered as SRs but later put on sale online as SR5s, complete with photographs. (The internet is a boon for crooks but it can help the good guys, too.) He recalled one of the vehicles and, when it was brought back in, it had miraculously reverted to an SR. This was odd.
2) Steal a car in Sydney and strip it of its parts.
The employee notified the Motor Unit at the Property Crime Squad, and Julian Thornton and his team checked out the sellers. With further RTA help, they discovered the two families accounted for 40 per cent of rebuilt Hilux SRs presented to the RTA in recent times.
Again with RTA help, some of the vehicles were recalled for safety checks. Vehicles that had been sold interstate were seized by police there, as there was little chance the families would find out about the police interest. The new parts that had been used to repair all the vehicles were examined, and in many cases experts were able to identify that they came from specific stolen vehicles.
At this point, the detectives wanted to keep their investigation secret but were concerned about safety issues. They had discovered some of the vehicles had been so badly repaired they were a risk to users. One common problem occurred when the top of a damaged vehicle had been cut off and replaced by the top of a stolen one, a process known as "cut and shut". The new top had been welded on at a point on the pillars below the top of the seat belts. So, in an accident where the vehicle rolled and the top came off, the occupants risked being dragged out. To counter such risks, the RTA impounded those vehicles that were just too dangerous to drive.
3) Repair the write off with parts from the stolen vehicle.
Other techniques had been used by the syndicate. In a few cases there was a straight "number job", where the vehicle identification number had been cut away and replaced with the VIN of a stolen vehicle. The engine number had been ground down and restamped. It is very easy for experts to detect where such changes have been made.
When a repaired write-off was presented to the RTA, it had to be accompanied by receipts for the new parts used. One of the syndicate would buy a part then return it to the shop and receive a refund. This would leave him with the receipt, which could be presented to the RTA as "proof" a stolen part on the vehicle had actually been purchased new. Some of these receipts were used for the registration of up to five vehicles.
Other techniques involved the old favourite of winding back the odometer and the creation of fake log books (using stolen blank books and repairer stamps) to hide the fact the car had been written off.
4) Upgrade vehicle and sell on internet.
In November 2009, police swooped on 10 premises and seized vehicles, documentation and $120,000 in cash. Nine people were subsequently charged and convicted. Like many people convicted of rebirthing offences, some were also involved in other criminal activity. Paul (Mohammed) Ismail was found in possession of an electronic cattle prod, for example, while Samir Ismail had ammunition.
Everyone received bonds or suspended sentences and, in some cases, were ordered to pay compensation to their victims. Abdullah Ismail (senior) had to pay up $117,017.70 and Andrea Montana (aka Ali El Masri) was told to produce $42,000. Not all this money has been paid.
The briefs of evidence against the nine individuals comprised more than 10,000 pages and involved some 200 witnesses. Nearly all the accused pleaded guilty in return for a reduction in penalties. Sorting things out with the victims was a nightmare - police had dozens of vehicles where one part (the write-off part) belonged to the person who had purchased it and the other (the new SR5 parts) to the person from whom an SR5 had been stolen and cannibalised. Insurance companies, lawyers and individuals spent many days negotiating who owned what.
To add to the woes of the purchasers of the vehicles (who often needed them for work and had had them impounded for months by police), the RTA in many cases insisted they conduct expensive repairs before their vehicles could be considered roadworthy again. This was on account of the poor quality of the repairs done by the criminal syndicate. Their cosmetic paint jobs had been excellent, though, and most vehicles advertised as in "immaculate condition". The results fooled experts - one was sold on through three Toyota dealerships in NSW and the ACT.
It would be harder to get away with this scam these days. According to Detective Inspector Andrew Waterman, the head of the motor unit, the case was ''one of the investigations that changed the law". NSW no longer registers vehicles that have been written off, here or in other states. And it is now possible to check on a vehicle's history through a national database, the Personal Property Security Register (ppsr.gov.au).This does not mean car rebirthing has ceased, though. "If you stop one way of doing it," Waterman says, "the crooks will find another. But at least we have made it a lot harder."
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