Chop shop busted in Concordia

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2001

What began as a simple domestic call in 1999 for Adams County Sheriff’s deputies slowly unraveled to reveal a three-state, professionally operated stolen truck ring.

Details of a two-year, multi-agency investigation were made public Thursday by Adams County Sheriff Tommy Ferrell. He said dozens of trucks were involved and estimated the money involved could be as much as several million dollars.

&uot;Amazingly enough, it all started with a 911 call,&uot; Ferrell said. &uot;A bad guy called 911 looking for help. It’s kind of funny, really. You never know where information is going to come from.&uot;

The &uot;bad guy&uot; in question was Jackie Lee Williams, 50, of 70 Steamplant Road in Adams County.

Deputies were called to a domestic dispute in July 1999 between Williams and another man, Ferrell said.

&uot;When the deputy got there he was confronted with two individuals arguing,&uot; Ferrell said. &uot;(Williams) claimed the other had stolen some tools. Then the other man said, ‘he can’t talk. He’s driving a stolen truck.’&uot;

&uot;We seized the truck, and the investigation took off from there,&uot; said Maj. John Manley, Adams County Sheriff’s investigator.

Manley said as deputies searched the truck, they noticed someone had tampered with the truck’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. VINs are unique numbers affixed to various part of vehicles intended to help keep track of vehicle ownership and registration.

Discovering the ring

Investigators kept digging into the stolen truck’s history. Soon a task force was formed with investigators from the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, FBI, Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, Louisiana State Police, Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Department and Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Manley said the ring was led by Jasper &uot;Jap&uot; Jenkins, 59, of 25A McAnire Road in Fayette. Jenkins operated Triple J Enterprises on U.S. 84 in Concordia Parish.

Manley said Jenkins would issue requests for certain makes and models of trucks – almost exclusively late-model pickup trucks. Most were high-end models including, the Chevrolet Z-71, although a few were heavily customized. The requests came after customers placed orders for a particular model. After the requests were made, car thieves would be dispatched to steal similar vehicles.

Special Agent James Stewart with the Alexandria, La., office of the FBI said Rickey Toney, 34 , of 12 Azalea Lane in Natchez, was one of the people who stole trucks and delivered them to Jenkins.

Investigators said trucks were stolen throughout Southwest Mississippi, Louisiana and portions of Tennessee.

&uot;He stole a truck off LSU campus during a football game, we had trucks stolen off casino parking lots in Vicksburg,&uot; Agent Stewart said. &uot;Jackie (Lee Williams) delivered cars, too. He worked in conjunction with Rickey.&uot;

Only about three of the stolen trucks were believed to come from Adams County, Manley said.

&uot;These guys were professional,&uot; Agent Stewart said. &uot;The one guy, Mr. Toney, said he could steal the cars in under 45 seconds. These guys, they knew what they were doing.&uot;

Large volume

Manley said the ring stopped operating once the investigation began, but estimated at one time the ring was processing up to two trucks per week.

&uot;One guy told us they’d been doing this since 1989,&uot; he said. &uot;At first with just one or two (trucks), and then it just gradually built up.&uot;

Ferrell said members of the ring purchased wrecked and salvaged late-model trucks and used those VINs to replace the ones on the stolen vehicles.

Manley said the most the ring ever paid for a stolen vehicle was about $1,500. After a bit of work to replace the VINs, the ring leaders would then resell the stolen trucks – usually for around $20,000.

Many of the trucks were disassembled and reassembled using parts from different vehicles to hide evidence the vehicles were stolen. Because the stolen vehicles were torn apart and reassembled, the kind of operation is sometimes referred to as a &uot;chop shop.&uot;

Throughout the case, investigators seized about 29 trucks worth an estimated $615,334, Ferrell said.

&uot;Some have been returned to the owners, which in most cases were the insurance companies who had already paid claims on them,&uot; said Lt. Cmd. Jimmy Boxx, head of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol’s Criminal Investigations Bureau. &uot;Some unidentifiable ones were released to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.&uot;

Boxx said investigators believe more of the stolen trucks remain on the roads today.

&uot;They are probably spread from the Gulf Coast to Tennessee,&uot; he said.

Manley said he doubts many will ever turn up.

&uot;We may come up with one every once in a while,&uot; he said.

Sophisticated thieves

The scope of the case was surprising, Ferrell said.

&uot;The volume was so large, initially, we couldn’t fathom how far this case went,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s the largest interstate truck theft ring we’re ever been involved in. All of the agencies involved have spent thousands of man hours on this case.&uot;

Agent Stewart said the ring was sizeable considering it occurred in a largely rural area.

&uot;It’s pretty significant for an area like Concordia and Natchez,&uot; he said. &uot;Go to New Orleans and you probably find them more common.&uot;

Ferrell said Virgil Luke, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, was called in to assist with the case.

&uot;He’s the expert in this sort of stuff,&uot; Ferrell said. &uot;And he was amazed.&uot;

&uot;These people were sophisticated with modern-day mechanics,&uot; Ferrell said.

To further erase the evidence of the thefts, Ferrell said the ring erased the computerized memory or &uot;brain&uot; of the trucks so that when computer diagnostic devices were attached, &uot;they were blank.&uot;

In addition, parts from one truck would be swapped for parts on another truck, Ferrell said, to further hide the trail. &uot;These guys sometimes swapped out whole engines,&uot; he said.

&uot;These people are good at this,&uot; Boxx said. &uot;Chop shop operators make a living at this.&uot;

Innocent victims

Manley said the most disturbing part of the case to him was the innocent people who purchased stolen trucks.

&uot;We had some who legitimately financed the trucks, which have since been seized because they were stolen,&uot; he said. &uot;And (the people are) still making payments on a truck they no longer have.&uot;

&uot;You just can’t exercise enough caution in checking titles,&uot; Ferrell said. &uot;They thought they were getting a good title, and they got taken for a ride.&uot;

Jenkins pleaded guilty to federal charges of interstate transportation of stolen property and was sentenced last week to 21 months in prison; three years supervised release; $11,000 in fines. He was ordered to pay $284,000 in restitution and is still awaiting trial on similar state charges.

Williams pleaded guilty to the federal charges last week and will be sentenced in November. He also has pleaded guilty to state charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Toney pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property and is awaiting sentencing.