Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Class Act (of crime)

For most of my life, I worked full-time as an automotive technician (aka: auto mechanic). I'd worked at gas stations, independent repair shops and various new car dealerships before landing a position at a Porsche-Audi dealer in the 1980s. When I first started working there, I didn't know much about German cars but they sent me to school and, eventually, I became a master Porsche-Audi technician... a pretty impressive addition to my resume, considering how complex those cars can be.

Of course, the owners of those luxury cars are usually pretty well-off and, over the years, I'd seen and heard of some pretty crazy things. One day, for example, a limo pulled up to our building and a young woman - probably just out of high-school - jumped out, ran into the showroom, and ordered a brand new Porsche: a graduation gift from her parents. After all the papers were signed, she hopped back into the limo before riding off into the sunset. Another time, some guy walked into the showroom and bought a new Audi paying all cash, dumping wads of bills onto the salesman's desk. Then there was the Porsche we were working on that required special parts so the job was delayed for a couple of weeks; the owner stopped by one day to check on our progress.

"Man, I'm paying $400 a month and I can't even drive the damn car," he said. 
"$400," I replied, "is that your monthly payment on the car?"
"No, no... the car is paid off; that's my insurance premium."

Throughout my career as a mechanic, I always took my lunch break. Sometimes I'd walk down the street to a local cafe, other times I'd get some Chinese food or pizza. Once in a while, I'd bring a sandwich from home or a deli; on those days, I'd usually sit in my van, eat my lunch while listening to the radio or reading something, and maybe take a nap afterward before returning to work.

On one of those days that I had a sandwich and soda in my cooler, I was sitting in my van in the back parking lot by work. A stretch limo entered the parking lot, rolled slowly past me as I looked up from a magazine I'd been reading, and I watched as it stopped by the back door to our shop. A well-dressed young guy got out of the limo, walked into the building, and a few minutes later, re-emerged, waving to the limo driver. He then walked over to a silver Porsche 911 that had been brought in for service, opened the door, got in and drove away with the limo following him. I continued to enjoy my lunch and eventually returned to work, looking forward to 4:30 and a chance to go home.

Later that same afternoon, I looked up from whatever car I was working on to see a couple of Nassau County cops walking through our shop. After continuing on to the area where the showroom and offices were located, they came back into the shop accompanied by our service manager; he called all of the service personnel to a meeting right in the middle of the shop and explained what was going on.

It seemed someone had stolen one of our customer's cars; a silver Porsche 911. He wanted to know if anyone had seen any suspicious-looking characters in our building or lot. As soon as I heard which car had been taken, I knew I was an eye-witness to the crime without even knowing it. Of course, I explained exactly what I had seen and described - as best I could - the guy who had taken the car. But I really didn't look very closely at him... why would I? I figured it was just another customer picking up his car. And, no, I didn't get a license plate number from the limo; why should I do that? Nothing that happened looked out-of-the-ordinary to me.

So, what made this crime so easy to commit? Well, whenever a car was brought in for service it was inspected for damage by a car-jockey, then a numbered tag was hung from the inside rear-view mirror and a same-numbered tag attached to the keys before it was parked. Whenever the car wasn't being worked on, the keys were hung on a large board (in numerical order, with all the other car keys) in the hallway leading from the shop to the showroom - an area open to anyone. Anyone with basic knowledge of the setup would have no problem walking into that hallway - especially during lunch hour when most employees are not around - and taking whatever keys they wanted. And, of course, the numbered tags, hanging from the mirrors of the cars in the lot, clearly identified each car.

I don't know if that thief or the Porsche were ever found. For all I know, the car could have been shipped to some South American drug lord or cut up and sold for parts. I do know that the key board was moved to the service manager's office after that day... yes, closing the barn door after the horse had escaped.

After working at many different places throughout my life, the job at the Porsche-Audi dealer lasted the longest: eleven years. I also learned a great deal during my time there – about cars and people – and how sophisticated criminals can be. I learned the true meaning of “white collar” crime.

No comments: