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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 6, 2006

Freeway above, chop shop below

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

A Honolulu police raid on an alleged chop-shop operation, in which stolen cars are stripped of parts for sale on the black market, revealed a football field-sized graveyard of vehicles on state property below H-1 Freeway in Pearl City.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A 56-year-old man was arrested on a drug charge during the raid. Police have to see someone stripping a stolen car before they can file theft charges. Lookouts who warn when police are near make that task almost impossible.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A homemade ramp allows chop shop operators access to the undercarriage of cars. Police also found welding equipment, compressors, engine lifts and a flatbed truck with signage for an auto-parts dealer.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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PEARL CITY When Scott Naleimaile arrived yesterday at the state Department of Transportation's baseyard in Pearl City at 5 a.m. he found a stolen blue Toyota sedan with no engine in front of the locked entrance gate.

"It's ongoing. They always leave them right in front, like leaving rubbish on someone's doorsteps," said Naleimaile, a Highways Division engineer.

The sedan shell was likely towed from a nearby "chop shop," where stolen car parts are collected for resale on an automotive black market.

He accompanied police yesterday on a raid of the illegal operation, which occupies a football field-sized lot on state property under H-1 Freeway, next to the DOT baseyard and near the Pearl Harbor Historic Trail. Overgrown brush obscures a view of the operation from passing joggers and bicyclists.

State property under roadways hidden from view due to overgrowth is appealing to chop shop operators.

"Even if we cleared it, they'd come back," Naleimaile said. "We put up razor wire, fencing and it doesn't work. The solution has to be constant monitoring. But that's easier said than done."

'A HAVEN FOR CRIMINALS'

Officers from the Pearl City Crime Reduction Unit and Honolulu police auto-theft detail, accompanied by National Insurance Crime Bureau agents and Naleimaile, converged on the chop shop site at 9 a.m. They found dozens of vehicles, most of them stripped. There also was welding equipment, compressors, engine lifts, and a flatbed truck with signage on its doors for an auto-parts dealer.

They also found six trespassers. One in that group, a 56-year-old Pearl City man, was arrested for suspected drug offenses involving crystal methamphetamine use, and his late-model luxury car was seized. The others were questioned and released.

Police are concerned about an increase in criminal activity at the site, said Pearl City CRU supervisor Sgt. Doug Iwamasa.

"It has gotten worse and it's become a haven for criminals," he said. "Our concern is for the safety of the public because it's so near to the bike path."

Mike McClosky, who jogs near the site daily, said he never has been curious enough to venture off the path to see what was behind the greenery.

"I have no business to go in there," McClosky said.

Pearl City police patrol Sgt. Mike Cobb and insurance crime bureau special agent Leroy Fujishige said stolen vehicles are brought in at night and stripped. A tow truck arrives in the morning to take the shells away.

"The carcasses are dumped on the side of streets all around the community," Cobb said.

Chop shops thrive because of the demand for automotive parts a "several billion-dollar black-market enterprise across the country," Fujishige said.

"We consider this to be a chop shop that's pretty active," Fujishige said, noting, "They're getting several thousand dollars a month for parts.

"The majority of cars are stolen for parts because of the resale value," Fujishige said. "For example, if you buy a Honda Civic seat from the dealer, it'll cost you $3,000. On the black market, you can get it for a few hundred dollars."

He added, "Used parts is big business. We believe the cars are stripped here and parts are being sold to junkyards, salvage yards and auto-body shops."

Despite the depth of information police compile about chop shops, arrests are hard to come by, Iwamasa said.

Those involved in the raided chop shop operation have posted lookouts on Lehua Avenue, who call ahead if they see police turn into Second Street, Iwamasa said. "For charges, you got to see someone operating or stripping the stolen vehicle," he said.

Catching someone standing near a stolen car in the process of being stripped is not enough.

"They know to be away from the cars when we arrive," Iwamasa said.

During the raid, Naleimaile represented DOT, which is the complainant. He said the same area was cleaned up three or four years ago.

"I was shocked," Naleimaile said of what he observed yesterday. "I didn't realize how large-scale it was. We have to remove this as soon as possible."

EXPENSIVE CLEANUP

DOT had planned to clean the site yesterday but manpower was shifted to fix roads damaged by the recent spell of wet weather.

"This is big money," Naleimaile said of the anticipated cleanup cost, "because we're dealing with a hazmat disposal problem from the fuels and oils in the vehicles."

The Pearl City chop shop site and the "hidden city" under the Ke'ehi Interchange, where the DOT is already doing a costly cleanup, are not isolated sites.

"I think it's more typical," Naleimaile said. "There are many places like this on the island and it's a concern for us."

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.