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When representatives of the DaimlerChrysler Corp. approached the Metropolitan Police Department to discuss auto thefts last year, they were concerned about the company’s high-end Mercedes products. But cops had other models on their minds, says Lt. Brian McAllister, head of the department’s Combined Auto Theft Section: Dowdy Dodge Caravans, Chrysler New Yorkers, and Plymouth Neons have become favorite targets of kiddie car thieves.

There is some accounting for taste, says McAllister. “Why do you think kids are stealing Voyagers and Caravans all the time?” he asks. “They’re not sporty cars. They’re very, very simple to steal.”

Since a low tide in 1998, District auto thefts have steadily risen more than 40 percent, to a total of 9,168 in 2002. No portion of the city accounts for as many of those thefts as the police department’s 6th District, north of Good Hope and Naylor Roads SE on the east side of the Anacostia. That area of the city has consistently outpaced citywide auto-theft averages, and the numbers in 6D continue to get worse: Preliminary statistics show a 35.4 percent rise in stolen autos for 2004.

Juvenile joy-riders, police say, are responsible for a great deal of the increase, and few models make the joy-riding experience go as smoothly as Chrysler brands. The top four types of cars stolen in the 6th District last year were Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth, and Jeep, respectively. Through March 25, more than 57 percent of cars stolen in 2004 were Chrysler makes, up from 28 percent in 2000, according to unofficial police statistics.

Though McAllister declines to go into specifics, other officers say that, after thieves jimmy a lock or break a side window, they use a flat-head screwdriver to break the “glow ring,” a plastic piece around the ignition in many Chrysler vehicles that illuminates in the dark. Once the glow ring is shattered, thieves have plenty of leverage to pop out the tumbler assembly, pull out and detach the ignition wires, and hot-wire the car. Even in Chrysler products without glow rings, officers say, the ignition assemblies are particularly easy to pry out.

McAllister says that juveniles he has interviewed brag about how fast they can break into the cars. “I’ve talked to these kids and they can get in and start it in less than a minute.”

The taste for Chrysler products appears to be an east-of-the-river phenomenon: On the latest national lists of most-stolen models compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), Chrysler-built models account for only two of the top 10. Though five Chrysler models appear on area-wide lists, they are overshadowed in top spots by the national favorites: Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys. Ivan Blackman, director of vehicle investigations for the NICB, says the last two years have seen a rash of Dodge Intrepid thefts for parts, particularly in the Midwest, but the joy-riding M.O. is peculiar to the District.

Even immediately across the District line, Chryslers lose some appeal. Sgt. Tom LaBriola, commander of the Prince George’s County Police Department’s auto-crimes section, says in his county, the makes of thieves’ targets correspond more to geography than to age. But Lt. Rex Barrett, commander of the department’s Environmental Crimes Unit, which handles abandoned cars, says Chrysler makes account for a noticeable portion of the 10 to 15 stolen cars abandoned in the county every month.

The problem isn’t completely isolated to the District’s Ward 7: In St. Louis, a series of fatal accidents in stolen Chryslers since August led police in January to ask DaimlerChrysler to address the problem. On March 23, Chrysler representatives met with St. Louis law-enforcement officials.

McAllister says the D.C. force hasn’t had any formal talks with DaimlerChrysler about the rash of thefts.

Cole Quinnell, manager of engineering communications for Chrysler Group, blames the thefts on a joy-riding subculture, not an engineering snafu. The problem, he says, is small groups of 12- to 16-year-old kids sharing their methods with each other, not the vulnerability of the glow rings: “It doesn’t help or hurt in vehicle theft.”

McAllister noted that Honda models were stolen by similar methods in the early ’90s. “Honda tightened that down, and now we have many fewer Hondas stolen by compromising the ignition,” he says.

Chrysler offers its “Sentry Key” ignition-immobilizer system to prevent theft, which dealers in urban areas often order. Quinnell says the company is responding to the thefts by making the feature standard on all its models within two years.

In the meantime, there are few signs that what has become a prime youth pastime in neighborhoods from Deanwood to Benning Heights will be waning. “It’s a game now,” McAllister says. “They’re racing around and playing Grand Theft Auto and having fun with it.” CP