At 6:45 on the morning of Tuesday, March 1, the only thing on Vanderbilt nursing student Amanda Lasley’s mind as she walked out the door of her East Nashville home was a big pathophsyiology exam. A friend stopped by to pick her up for class. But as Lasley made her way to the street, she realized something was missing from the corner of Chicamauga Avenue and Bailey Street.
“Wait a second, where’s my car,” she said to herself.
Gone was her white 1995 Honda Accord station wagon. It was by no means a flashy ride, but it was hers, bought and paid for just the week before, after the arrival of a student loan check.
Lasley had left no GPS unit, laptop, iPod, musical instrument, wad of cash or anything really inside the car to catch the eye of a thief — nothing but her coat and a few articles of clothing. She and her fiancé, however, left the doors unlocked.
Halfway to class that day, Lasley learned she’d have to return home to meet a police officer and file a report. About a week later, police told Lasley they’d found her car, though she’s waiting for her insurance company to clear the claim before she gets it back.
“I would guess that someone took it, drove all of the gas out of it and then left it somewhere,” Lasley said.
Metro police have known for a while that Honda Accords and other cars with a lot of plastic parts are easy targets, but now they think they know the reason for a recent steep climb in Accord thefts in Nashville. In fact, with the arrest of 22-year-old Christopher P. Clayton, they believe they’ve cut the legs out from under the runaway number of stolen Accords.
Thefts of Honda Accords, particularly mid-1990s models, have remained a thorn in the side of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit. Last September, police issued a list of the top 10 stolen vehicles in Nashville to that point in 2010. The top three listed were Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Honda Civic — all of which feature thin plastic near and around the ignition — while five American models and two more imports rounded out the list.
So far this year, stolen American models are on pace with last year’s numbers, but the number of stolen Hondas nearly tripled — from 20 in the first two-and-half months of 2010 to 56 during the same time period this year.
Additional and more advanced anti-theft features on newer vehicles have made older models more attractive. In Nashville, heavy metal American cars older than 10 years are still popular targets for tow-away thieves with trailers or tow trucks because of the haul they can bring at a scrap metal dealer.
But older imports, particularly mid-1990s Accords with plastic steering column covers, are easier targets for even novice car thieves who need only a screwdriver and half a minute before they’re joyriding in a stranger’s car.
A couple weeks ago, detectives picked up valuable information from a case involving a juvenile who stole a vehicle and led cops on a chase before crashing it.
That investigation — along with a Crime Stoppers tip that Clayton had been seen driving several different Hondas and boasted about stealing them — led police to believe the two are connected at the center of the recent spike in Honda thefts. Sgt. Billy Smith of the Auto Theft Unit said both used the same mode of operation and the same drop-off location.
Two blocks away from Clayton’s residence, along Cedarwood Lane near the former Peterbilt Motors factory in Madison, police recovered nine (five in one day) ditched Accords.
“I would say probably the majority of them are from these two guys,” Smith said, adding that detectives have plenty of leads on other cases. “I’ve got a bunch of prints out of other stolen Hondas that I’m just waiting on ID to compare.”
So far, police have charged Clayton with stealing at least eight cars, all Accords, between Feb. 10 and his March 11 arrest.
“This guy was good,” Smith said. “He’d brag [that] in 30 seconds, he could steal a Honda.”
According to Smith, Clayton didn’t have his own car but rather would walk somewhere, find a Honda, steal it, ride around and go home. “He said the majority of the time the doors were unlocked.”
So continues the investigation surrounding Clayton and the juvenile, who told police that Clayton taught him how to steal the cars. Smith said Clayton hung around several underage associates and perhaps served as a Pied Piper of auto theft, teaching them the tricks of the trade.
“I feel that more arrests are possible,” Smith said. “The reason being we don’t know how many people he has taught to do this.”
But four days later, Smith said there hadn’t been a single Honda stolen since Clayton’s arrest.
Still, people are going to steal cars, Hondas or otherwise, especially if they’re left easy targets — like cheese without a trap.
Anything people can do to secure their cars will help, Smith said. That includes parking in well-lit, heavily traveled areas, locking doors, removing valuables, not hiding keys inside or on vehicles, and perhaps investing in a steering wheel lock, he said.
It’s unclear whether Lasley’s Accord wagon was one of Clayton’s marks.Thieves broke the window of her fiancé’s car a year ago, and “since I didn’t really have anything of value in the car, and he didn’t at the time either, we sometimes are of the opinion that it makes more sense and is cheaper to pay for whatever they take out of the car than it is to replace a window.”
Lasley said it wasn’t a conscious decision to leave her car unlocked the night before
it was stolen. But afterward, a mechanic friend told her how easy it was to steal her type of car.
“If I had know that, I would have been more vigilant about keeping the door locked,” she said.