A fixed wing surveillance plane criss-crosses the vast interior of fields, forest and bush on Six Nations of the Grand River while police scan for the telltale dots that are abandoned vehicles below.

Above properties on Third Line they spot two areas which would turn out to be a stash for 75 stolen trucks and SUVs — the largest single haul by Project Shutdown, a multi-police agency team dedicated to investigating stolen autos in the area.

From the ground these vehicles cannot be seen, especially once the spring foliage grows in or when covered by a blanket of snow. So the plane, owned by the OPP, is used twice a year — in the early spring and again in fall.

Police had to wait for the heavy rain earlier this spring and summer to pass before they could go in and recover the 75 vehicles in June.

It took a whole day to tow the vehicles out, including one so submerged that a tractor was needed, said Hamilton police Staff Sgt. Emidio Evangelista.

One vehicle was stolen in 2003, others this year. Some were completely stripped and others almost entirely intact — save the missing tires and rims, which police say are always the first to go because they are untraceable and sell for fast cash.

The team is led by Hamilton police and also includes officers from Six Nations, Brantford, Halton and OPP. Since February 2012 it has focused on a very narrow, but problematic trend in vehicle thefts — full-sized GMC and Chevys manufactured between 2000 and 2007. These vehicles are targeted because they’re easy to steal and their tires and rims can be sold to fit on most other similar-sized vehicles.

“When this project first started, we came to the table and said we have a stolen vehicle problem, and Six Nations came to the table and said ours is the opposite, we have a stolen vehicle recovery problem,” said Sgt. Sean Moore, Hamilton’s officer on Project Shutdown since the beginning.

Because of the team’s narrow focus on specific types of stolen vehicles, many of their recoveries and arrests happen on Six Nations. Moore said the thieves are mostly a small group of people who are not organized. The high-end trucks and SUVs are sought after specifically for their tires and rims, which used to go for about $600 a set, but have now gone down to about $300 due to asaturated market.

It’s the fast and easy cash from the tires and rims that the thieves are targeting, and that fast cash is often quickly turned into drugs, Moore said.

Vehicles newer than 2007 are much harder to steal because of technology upgrades. That’s why it’s the trucks and SUVs in that seven-year range that are the hot commodity. Moore said he’s seen a video of someone stealing a Hummer in just 21 seconds.

There were nine Hummers recovered in that 75-vehicle haul.

An earlier version of the project was initially launched by the OPP in 2010, but was abandoned the following year. With its absence, Hamilton police saw vehicle thefts flourish, Evangelista said.

So in February 2012 the Hamilton-led project began with 11 officers. They’re now down to five, with each police service signing a new agreement annually to keep the project going.

Not all vehicle thefts end up with Project Shutdown, just the ones that fit their target vehicle type.

The team does not focus on large-scale chop shops or organized crime that works to steal newer, high-end cars.

Police know that unless a thief is caught with the vehicle, the chance of getting to it before it’s dumped and finding the thief is very difficult. Within 30 days of a vehicle being stolen, its ownership is typically transferred to the insurance company.

So when police recovered those 75 vehicles, it was mainly insurance companies that police contacted, not the original owners.

Project Shutdown has a special relationship with Six Nations, and its officers do not need advanced notice to go onto the First Nations community, Moore said. While there, they are answerable to a senior officer at Six Nations Police.

No one from Six Nations Police could be reached for comment for this article.

“The way Six Nations is designed is like a grid, with all the residents and farms on the outside and in the interior all farmland, bush and forest,” Moore said. “Get a path in there, and there is no way to see it.”

A challenge has also been that many property owners don’t report when they discover vehicles dumped on their land, simply because they think it’s not their problem.

Moore said they’ve had farmers latterly plant crops around dumped vehicles, which police then can’t recover without damaging crops.

Police can tell how long a vehicle has been dumped by how much it has been scavenged. The tires and rims are always the first to go, and maybe the battery (which goes for about $25). Then, as people pass by, they will grab items such as lights and leather seats.

At the 75-vehicle recovery, some trucks and SUVs were almost intact, while others were completely stripped.

Once they find the vehicle, it’s not just a matter of recovery. Hamilton police has auto theft investigators who work out of the BEAR unit, and vehicles are towed to a bay at the Mountain station on Rymal Road.

There, vehicles are taken apart for evidence to prove the vehicle was stolen, find the owner and try to identify the thief. Sometimes they can be difficult to identify because the VIN is altered — although all vehicles have VIN numbers hidden elsewhere. Moore said the location of the hidden numbers varies vehicle to vehicle and is proprietary information only auto theft police are allowed to know through special training.

Sometimes police use a “bait car” left at high-vehicle theft areas such as malls or movie theatres where thieves watch drivers leave and know they’re likely gone for more than an hour. The police-owned vehicle is disabled so it can’t be driven, and there is a camera inside that can be used to prosecute the would-be thief.

Project Shutdown also responds to gas-and-dash thefts, because thieves stealing gas are sometimes in stolen vehicles and their image is captured on gas station surveillance.

Now five years into the Hamilton police-led project, police say they are making inroads and are starting to see fewer thefts locally. More thefts are starting to happen in outlying area such as Oxford County, Waterloo Region, Niagara and London.

Project Shutdown spends a lot of time arresting the same people. Moore said he knows of more than three people who have been arrested more than five times in five years.

“They all know what Shutdown is about, and we know them … our targets are well aware of us,” Evangelista said.

Sometimes they see targets posting commentary online: “Be careful, I think Shutdown is watching me.”

One target went through a phase in which he would leave messages scratched into or spray painted on dumped vehicles, including: (expletive) you Shutdown, and Caught you sleeping Shutdown.

“We don’t want to be secret; we want them to be afraid of us,” Moore said of their targets.

By the numbers

February 2012 to end of June 2017

262 people charged

1,261 charges laid

1,029 vehicles recovered

Source: Hamilton Police

Tips to prevent vehicle thefts

  • Always lock doors and don’t leave valuables in the car
  • Park in busy, well-lit areas
  • Use aftermarket security features
  • Pay attention if someone is watching or if something feels suspicious
  • Always report to police

Source: The Hamilton Spectator