Tales From the Lockup: Tag Man
A Cop's Eye View from Charles Shafer.

Excellent novelists such as Elmore Leonard and George Higgins entertain us with stories about maniac stickup crews, drug pushers, and gangbangers. In the end everybody goes to jail, or worse.

Let me tell you about a special kind of real life criminal who rarely gets arrested, let alone goes to jail. They are rarely written about, too.

Cops call them tag men, and following is their modus operandi. First, a tag man needs a junk vehicle. Not a problem in big cities like Chicago, where abandoned cars are like crabgrass in my backyard.

When a tag man finds the junk he's looking for, he'll knock on its owner's door, and say, "That beat up Cadillac out back? I understand it's yours. I'll give you two hundred for it."

Of course the owner had expected to take a complete loss on his junk, so he's only too happy to turn over its title. And that's all the tag man wants. That, and that little metal tag on the Cadillac's dashboard; the vehicle identification tag, or VIN tag, which he has probably already removed.

Now he steals another Cadillac, same model, same year, which is in perfect condition. He disguises the stolen Cadillac with the VIN tag from the junk. Then he takes out an add in the paper and sells it to Joe Citizen, say for a few thousand dollars. Not a lot for all that bother, but if he works this scam three or four times a month, he stands to earn well over one hundred thousand dollars a year. Tax free!

Sound easy? Yes, it is. Only sometimes detectives assigned to the Auto Theft Section spoil the fun.

Here's how my old partner, Wally Burzinski, and I did it. We'd scour Chicago for abandoned vehicles. Sooner or later we would find the same junk Cadillac Mr. Tag Man started out with. Of course it's missing that all important VIN tag, so we climb underneath and read its identification number off the frame. A little dirtier, we check the computer and discover it was recently sold to Joe Citizen, which is interesting because there it sits in front of us, rusty and bent. We take a ride past Joe's house, and see a nice clean Cadillac parked in front. Of course it's the stolen Cadillac, disguised with the junk's VIN tag. If we're lucky, Joe can lead us to the tag man, who is charged, and hopefully convicted.

That's when things get interesting, because the system divides crime into two categories, crimes against persons, and crimes against property. Crimes against persons includes such offenses as murder, robbery, and rape. Crimes against property; burglary, auto theft, and the like. Because our prisons are overflowing, judges punish only the most serious offenses with jail time. The rest get probation, including tag men.

Discouraging? Yes, but part of the process, because a good detective goes right back to the street, and finds another stolen car our tag man has sold with a false VIN tag. And when the tag man is arrested, he's told, "Okay, pal, here's the deal. This time you're on probation, and you're going away unless you give up some other dude who's tagging cars."

Sometimes they will tell you where you can stick your deal. That's okay, though, because their probation is revoked, and they go to jail. But usually they'll lead you to a few more tag men. Result: A number of arrests, and dozens of stolen cars are recovered which would not have been found otherwise.

Over the years we got to know these tag men, and they us. It was like a cat and mouse game, with the tag men usually on the winning side.

We learned not to take it personally.

We also made sure they didn't know where our cars were parked.

This piece originally appeared in Blue Murder.

Charlie Shafer retired from the Chicago PD after 28 years, 25 as a detective. His short fiction and articles have appeared world wide, in such magazines as Crime Time, Crime Factory, Mystery Scene, and Murderous Intent, along with the web zine, Blue Murder. His first novel, On Cabrini Green, was published by Crime Time Publishing in 2000. His second, Chicago Stretch, will be released summer, 2003 by Hilliard and Harris.

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