Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Five Pine Bluff, Arkansas men arrested by Batesville police Friday appear to be members of a large chop shop operation in Arkansas, Batesville Police Detective Captain George Williford said.

Suspicious salesmen alert local police
to stop elaborate car theft scheme

By John Howell

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Five Pine Bluff, Arkansas men arrested by Batesville police Friday appear to be members of a large chop shop operation in Arkansas, Batesville Police Detective Captain George Williford said.

The men made stops at Hallmark Ford, Stanley’s Auto Sales and Pride Hyundai Friday afternoon before being apprehended at the Pride dealership on a tip from Stanley’s.

“If it wasn’t for them, they would have got away,” said a Hallmark Ford salesman who was approached by the men posing as interested customers.

The owner at Stanley’s had become suspicious and jotted down the license tag number of the vehicle in which the men were riding. When the key to a vehicle was determined to be missing after they left, Stanley’s called police with the tag number.

Copied tag number
The tag number was quickly determined to belong to a vehicle that had been stolen, setting off the chain of events that led to the arrests and a busy weekend for Williford.

“It’s snowballing,” Williford said Monday as three additional law enforcement jurisdictions had become involved in the investigation.

“They would take vehicles, alter the VINs — that sort of thing,” Williford alleged. An investigation in Arkansas had apparently created enough pressure to force them out of state looking for vehicles — in Batesville.

Jailed on charges of petit larceny  and possession of burglary tools were Austin Allawiches Terrell, 24; Marquez Desjuan Vinson, 33; Courtney Cortez Lane, 26; Taurus Lee Chambers, 24 and Clifford Dell Chambers, 47.
By Monday, Williford had also charged the men with conspiracy to commit grand larceny and was waiting on federal charges.

Apprehended at Pride
The customer who approached a salesperson at Pride Hyundai Friday afternoon seemed to know his way around a car dealership, walking first back to the service area before returning to the front where new vehicles are on display.

“Hey, do you need any help?” the salesperson asked.

It was about that time that police drove into the dealership, drove up to a vehicle with four men inside and approached it with guns drawn.

That’s when things went awry for the “customer” who continued his banter with the salesperson, asking about taking a car for a test drive and talking with familiarity about other Batesville dealerships.

Meanwhile, the police were handcuffing the four men they had removed from the vehicle.

“That’s getting me distracted,” the customer said to the salesperson at one point, remarking on the commotion underway outside the building.

The customer also asked to use the restroom, then returned to it several times during his encounter with the salesperson. Once he returned with water still dripping from his forearms, the salesperson said.

The customer had returned to the bathroom when police walked in looking for him, the salesperson, whose name will not be published for safety reasons, continued.

Police, using a trained dog, eventually rousted the customer from the bathroom. A search of the bathroom led to the discovery in the commode tank of several auto keys hidden inside.

The customer had apparently been dropped off at the dealership by the vehicle carrying the other four men.
Losses averted at Hallmark

Sales personnel at Hallmark Ford later determined that the thieves had apparently made off with keys from two vehicles with retail values totalling $70,000.

The sales representative who worked with one of the alleged thieves said that the men acted like typical prospective customers who visit lots and showrooms. One of the men took a key to examine a vehicle more closely and then returned it to the sales person.

The sales person used the remote key fob to relock the vehicle, he said, not suspecting that the actual key had been removed and replaced with a look-alike.

Later, as the sales person drove away from Hallmark after closing, he saw that the police had the men in handcuffs at Pride’s a short distance east on Highway 6. After a call from a Pride’s employee warning about the theft attempt, Hallmark employees determined that keys had also been taken from two vehicles on their lot.