Imagine returning home from work to find your car stolen right out of your driveway. Before you have a chance to call police and make a report, the cars have already been sold to a junk yard and scrapped.
That’s exactly what happened to Jim and Lisa McLain, of Lakewood, N.J.
“It’s outrageous that someone could just come to your house in broad daylight during the day, load up your cars, take them away, and have them crushed,” Lisa McLain said.
The McLains reported both of their cars stolen on Dec. 19 last year. According to Lakewood Police, Rene Reyes, a man who lives just a few miles away called a tow service and convinced the tow operator to pay him cash for the McLains’ 1985 Pontiac Firebird and 1983 Dodge Omni.
The tow driver took the vehicles to Blewett’s salvage yard in Howell Township. The vehicles were crushed in a matter of hours.
According to Lakewood Detective Sgt. Greg Staffordsmith, only Reyes was charged.
“The tow truck company and operator were found not to be involved and cleared of any culpability,” he said.
Blewett's was also cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
“I think that somebody should change the law and make it so a junk yard can’t just take a car and scrap it immediately,” Jim McClain said.
According to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, a tow company or salvage yard must first obtain a title of ownership before buying a car or truck intended to be scrapped.
But the I-Team has discovered some businesses are ignoring the law.
Using a hidden camera, the I-Team summoned tow operators to a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in the McLains' driveway.
Most said they could not accept a vehicle without a title.
But one tow operator, a company called Andrade Towing, agreed to pay $215 to haul the SUV to Blewett's. Andrade did not return the I-Team's calls for comment.
The driver, who did not provide his name, did ask to see a driver license and vehicle registration, but state motor vehicle regulations say only a title is considered valid proof of ownership.
Elyse Coffey, a spokeswoman for the Motor Vehicle Commission, told the I-Team, “when you take your car to a junk yard to be sold for metal or parts, you have to present your title.”
Susan Blewett, the salvage yard owner, said she was aware of the state rules requiring a title in order to scrap a vehicle, but she said flexibility is important.
“I know New Jersey says you need to have a title, but we work with our customers when they don’t have one and we do take other proof of ownership,” Blewett said.
So how can a company like Blewett's purchase stolen cars, crush them without a title and get away with it?
The state does not license salvage yards, so any civil penalty is left to municipalities that do.
Howell Township Manager Jeff Filiatreault said the main purpose of salvage yard licenses is not to penalize businesses that fail to follow state laws.
“The whole idea of licensure is so we have control over how many we have in town,” Filiatreault said.
“Perhaps we should look at a new ordinance. We check to see that the taxes are done and the zoning and if there have been any complains about housekeeping, but we don’t check with the police to see if there have been complaints about stolen property and possibly we should,” Filiatreault added.
With tow operators and salvage yards conducting business in that kind of regulatory gray area, police are concerned cash-for-car scams could proliferate.
“Although this type of crime does not happen often in Lakewood, it has happened on several occasions,” Staffordsmith wrote in an email to the I-Team. “It is our experience that unscrupulous tow truck operators and/or individuals who claim to have authority, will ‘surf’ local neighborhoods and apartment complexes looking for vehicles that appear to be abandoned.”
After he was indicted by a grand jury, Reyes is now awaiting trial. Attempts to contact Reyes for comment were unsuccessful.
Jim McLain isn’t sure where to direct his anger: the man accused of stealing two of his cars, or the salvage yard that accepted them.
“It certainly doesn’t seem legal to do what they’re doing," he said. "Anyone could just take any car then and have it crushed and take the scrap money!”