These theft victims tracked down their stolen cars. But the police didn’t show up

Adam Westland knows cars and trucks. His friends call him a “petrolhead” — someone who’s obsessed with vehicles.

And so when Julie, his wife, looked out their Toronto window in December and shouted — “Adam, the truck’s gone” — he swung into action. It was a few days before Christmas, and they were about to drive to Prince Edward County to see family.

Using the state-of-the-art tracker he’d installed, Adam precisely located his Ford F-150 Raptor pickup while on the phone to Toronto police. What happened next is becoming a common occurrence in Toronto. The police did not show up.

Toronto is in the midst of a car theft crisis. As of this week, 4,250 vehicles have been stolen — up almost 60 per cent from last year, and the number is growing. While a few are taken in gunpoint carjackings, like the high-profile and still-unsolved theft of Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner’s Range Rover, the majority disappear as Westland’s did, in the dead of night. Thieves ship them overseas in an organized crime pipeline that Interpol says has links to terrorism.

The Star has interviewed victims with stories strikingly similar to Westland’s. Two are presented here, along with the tale of the still-missing Raptor. Toronto police say they are taking auto theft seriously, but have not given details of what they are doing. The force has also declined to provide a senior officer to be interviewed by the Star (despite our requests over the past three months).

Adam is tall and lanky. His look is jeans, a black shirt and a dark wool tuque pulled tight over his long brown hair. He’s the founder and CEO of a unique company called RClub that allows car enthusiasts, for a membership price, to drive vehicles they normally would not have access to. “Own the road, not the car” is the motto.

The company’s sparkling-clean east-end industrial space is filled with vehicles that would be at home on the set of a James Bond movie or Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The fleet changes from time to time but has included a vintage Ford Mustang, a BMW E46, a Mercedes 280 SEL, a Porsche Cayman GT4 and a Porsche 964 Cabrio, a Toyota Supra, a Ferrari F355 Spider and a Honda NSX midengine sport coupe.

The cars are set out between couches and desks, some on hoists. Members can use RClub as a remote office and get an espresso. The cars — some people take them for a few hours, others for an overnight trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake — are even equipped with a device that alerts Westland if a member is driving too fast.

Adam Westland tracked his stolen pickup truck to a residential area across town and found his key fob no longer worked. He informed police of the location, but they did not show up before the vehicle was moved again.

The 2019 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup is Adam’s personal vehicle. It was billed by Car and Driver magazine as “too much off-road truck for most people.” He used it to get around, sometimes picking up parts and supplies. He and Julie live near Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto’s west end.

When Julie saw their parking spot empty, he called police. A bold notice on the Toronto police website advises car owners to “report the theft to the police immediately.”

A dispatcher came on the line, asking him the nature of his emergency. While he answered her questions, Adam checked the app linked to the tracker on the Raptor. It told him someone started his truck at 1:58 a.m.

“I can tell you exactly where it is,” Adam told the dispatcher. He saw on the tracker’s map that the Raptor had driven from Queen Street West in a northeast direction, stopping 10 kilometres away on Heath Street, in a residential neighbourhood east of Mount Pleasant Road.

“A detective will be assigned,” the dispatcher said. No estimation was given on timing. For Adam, this made no sense. “What’s the point of reporting to police immediately?” he later wondered in an interview with the Star. He figured cops would have jumped at the chance to retrieve the vehicle, seize it, fingerprint it, and return it to him. “I’m going to go find it,” he told the dispatcher.

Julie’s sister picked them up and they headed to the Raptor’s location, pulling up behind it. Adam tried his key fob but it did not start the car. As the Star has reported, thieves typically reprogram the car’s computer system to link to a new key fob. That stops the car’s legitimate key fob from working.

The only damage he could see was a broken door handle. A Ford mechanic showed the Star how easy it is to “pop” the handle of a Ford truck with a pair of vise grips. Once inside, a thief can easily reprogram key fobs and drive off. As the Star has found in its ongoing investigation, thieves are well ahead of car companies when it comes to defeating “anti-theft devices” and locks.

A video Julie took that morning shows Adam walking around the truck. He called police again. “Don’t touch it,” a dispatcher said, but offered no indication of when police would arrive.

They waited as long as they could, then headed off to their family Christmas.

The tracker showed the Raptor sat at the same spot on Heath Street until just after noon. Thieves typically leave a car somewhere to “cool off” — to see if police or the owner come looking.

At 1 p.m., someone started the Raptor, drove to a nearby street, did a three-point turn and stopped. It sat there for almost three hours. At 3:42 p.m. the Raptor was started again, and this time it drove around for almost one hour, though oddly the tracker shows the Raptor only covered five kilometres on this journey. It stopped on Don Mills Road near the Ontario Science Centre. There’s a group of apartment buildings there and Adam (who was by this time in Prince Edward County) assumed the Raptor was in an underground garage. It sat there for 20 hours.

He kept feeding information to police.

“It’s easy to spot. It’s a big blue truck,” Adam told a detective from 41 Division who called him later that day (Dec. 23). The detective (who did not respond to the Star’s request for an interview) said he had gone to the scene but did not find the truck.

“It is there,” Adam told the detective. “It’s talking to me.”

The Star could not determine if the detective went into the parking garages nearby. He then took sick leave due to COVID-19. Adam’s tracker told him the truck was not moving. Another detective called him a few days later. This one told Adam he checked some parking garages, but was not able to get access to one. The tracker indicated the Raptor was still in the vicinity.

Then, movement. On Dec. 29 at 1:25 p.m., the Raptor started up and, moving at two kilometres an hour, it reversed, then went forward, covering just a few metres each time. Then the parking brake went on. It is likely that these small movements were the truck being manoeuvred into a shipping container. A third detective went to the area, but told Adam he could not find the vehicle. The truck stayed in the same area near the Ontario Science Centre until Jan. 12. That’s when the tracker stopped reporting information.

It’s likely the Raptor — inside a shipping container — was moved that day to one of two railway intermodal shipping locations in the GTA and was taken by train to the east coast, for shipping overseas. As the Star investigation has shown, police and customs officials rarely check containers that are leaving Canada — their focus is on what is coming into the country.

Toronto police, provided with the information in this story, did not respond to the Star’s questions about the missing Raptor.

Jamie from North Toronto and Rob from Etobicoke had similar car theft stories (at their request for privacy, the Star is not using their last names).

Jamie’s Ram 1500 pickup truck was parked on his street overnight on May 26 because a windstorm had knocked a tree down over his driveway. The car was stolen at 3 a.m. and he noticed it was missing first thing in the morning. Jamie had hidden an Apple AirTag in the vehicle, having heard of the rise in car thefts and because a few months earlier, his Range Rover had been stolen from his driveway.

“I looked on the app and saw it was at Front and Bay Street downtown,” said Jamie. He called Toronto police. “I’ll get a car over there right now,” the dispatcher said.

Not hearing back from police, he and a friend headed downtown in the late afternoon. They walked around in a parking garage at the address that matched the AirTag and spotted the truck at 4:30 p.m. The doors were unlocked and one of the side windows was cracked (Jamie figures that’s how the thief got into the car, then they reprogrammed the vehicle to link to a new key fob). His own key fob no longer worked. Jamie looked around the garage. Seeing no sign of police, he grabbed some of his personal belongings, waited two hours, then went home. There was no word from the police.

The next day, the AirTag tracker told him his pickup truck was in Brampton on Orenda Road, an industrial area. He told Toronto police. They told him to call Peel Regional Police. Around the same time, a day after the pickup had left the Front Street parking garage, police called to tell him they had gone to the garage and his truck was not there.

“I guess they are so overwhelmed with car thefts,” Jamie told the Star. Again he noticed his truck was on the move, this time to a Canadian Tire parking lot near a shipping container depot. He bounced back and forth between Toronto and Peel police, but neither seemed that interested in finding the truck.

“I figured they would put an officer on a stakeout, catch the people doing this,” he said. “Would have been nice if they went the first day.”

Shortly after, the AirTag stopped transmitting its location.

Rob’s slate blue Grand Cherokee SUV was taken from his Etobicoke driveway on March 24. He had both of the key fobs inside the house in Faraday pouches, which prevents thieves from acquiring the signal from the fob and opening the doors in what is called a “relay attack.” As the Star has found, there are numerous ways to gain entry to a vehicle and then create a new key fob to start it up. Some thieves are going old school — smashing the window, as in Jamie’s case.

Rob called Toronto police and spoke to a dispatcher, providing the theft details. He first heard from a detective seven days later. The detective told him he had just been assigned the case but was about to go on vacation. Rob told the detective he had sent police multiple emails telling them that his vehicle had been stolen, all with a key piece of information — that he had a SiriusXM Guardian satellite tracker installed in his car. But Sirius would release the location of a stolen vehicle only to police, not to the owner (this is common with tracking apps, including one installed on Toyota Highlander SUVs).

“During those seven days, Sirius Guardian was trying to contact them with the location of the vehicle,” Rob told the Star.

Meanwhile, Rob, a commercial photographer, had located what appeared to be his specialized photography equipment being sold on Facebook Marketplace. He passed that information on to police as well.

No action was taken. As far as he knows, police never spoke to Sirius Guardian. As for his equipment, police took in the information he provided — the name and location of the woman selling thousands of dollars of equipment that appeared to be his — but told him by email they would not be reaching out to her for “operational and investigative reasons.”

The detective added, “If you do see more of your camera equipment being advertised for sale by her or anyone please let me know.”

In the Star’s ongoing investigation, we have learned that when police take a report of a stolen vehicle, this is what will likely happen — according to interviews with more than 100 car theft victims.

You will be put on hold. A dispatcher will take your telephone number. Hours later, or days, an officer will call to take the details of the vehicle over the phone. Some time later, a detective from a local office will call and take down the same information. Eventually, you will be given the one piece of information your insurance company has been asking for since you told them your car was stolen: the “police report number.” Then, it’s case closed.

Last May, Toronto Police Chief James Ramer announced the creation of the Organized Crime Investigative Support Team, to probe car jackings, car thefts and kidnappings — crimes he said that fall outside the mandate of other police units. The force has “reallocated” $2.3 million to the new unit and a spokesman for the force said it will provide a “targeted response to emerging crime trends including the significant increase in auto thefts.” The Star has been asking police for three months to provide more details on what they are doing — police have repeatedly said they will “look into” the Star request.

The Star’s previous reporting includes tips on how to stop your car from being stolen. They can be found here.

The Toronto Star’s updates on car thefts in each city neighbourhood can be found here.


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