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Unlocking the legend behind vanishing Camrys

When Tom King’s 1991 Toyota Camry was stolen in Adams Morgan on Nov. 15, he was a little surprised. It was a Friday night in a neighborhood full of partygoers. It would have taken a brazen thief to break in and hot-wire the car in public view.

Unless no breaking or hot-wiring had been necessary. The following week, King’s insurance agent offered a possible explanation: Recently, the agent told him, a juvenile offender had been convicted of manufacturing and distributing upward of 200 universal Camry keys.

Tales about such keys—which are supposed to work in any Camry of a certain vintage—are certainly making the rounds among auto-theft victims and insurance agents. Or, in at least one instance, an insurance agent who was an auto-theft victim: On Election Day, Alfred Nguyuza, an account representative with Allstate, went to the parking lot at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station and found his 1991 Toyota Camry missing. One of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers who reported to the scene offered an explanation, Nguyuza says: “He told me there’s a certain key that thieves are now using that is able to open Toyota Camrys from years ranging from 1989 to 1992.”

District police say they have no record of breaking up any junior key ring. In Montgomery County, where one version of the story puts the arrest, Sgt. Fergus Sugrue of the centralized auto-theft section says he hasn’t heard of such a case, either. The closest incident on record, Sugrue says, is the 1999 arrest of a 16-year-old driving a stolen Camry. That teen said he’d bought a master key for $10 from someone known as “Scoop.” Scoop was never apprehended, Sugrue says.

The Montgomery County master key left something to be desired. By Sugrue’s account, the 16-year-old had tried the key in 20 Camrys before finding one that would start.

Detective Daniel Straub of the MPD auto-theft division says that there isn’t any master key as such. “It’s not a situation where you can go and get a key cut and get into anybody’s Camry,” Straub says. “You have to do some work with this key, and file it and make some adjustments. All of the ignitions are not identical.”

Still, Straub says, older Camrys, particularly the ’87 through ’91 models, have ignition locks that are easy to defeat. And thieves have been aware of it, he says, since at least 1999.

Montgomery County’s Sugrue seconds the notion that Camry thefts should be chalked up to the lock rather than the pick. “Some of the older-model Toyotas, the ignitions could be manipulated using various types of keys,” he says.

“I don’t want to go into more detail,” Sugrue adds. “The kids do enough educating amongst themselves.”

Ease of entry notwithstanding, it seems car thieves look for the same qualities as less feloniously inclined motorists. “A lot of the Toyota Camrys that are recovered are intact,” Straub says, “and they are used because they are reliable, they’re fast, and have a very good track record.”

According to a report compiled by CCC Information Services Inc., a group that gathers auto-claim reports for North American insurers, the three most-stolen vehicle models in the United States in 2001 were the 1991 Toyota Camry, the 1989 Toyota Camry, and the 1990 Toyota Camry. According to the same report, the models most stolen in the District were the same three Camrys.

Despite the rankings, some local mechanics say stealing a Camry isn’t as easy as turning a magic key. Jon Moser, the manager of Far East Motors in Silver Spring, says that a lot of stolen Camrys have passed through his shop, always with signs of forced entry and ignition damage.

But Mery Orosco, the owner of J&N Auto Service in Adams Morgan, says he believes in the key—a year ago, a Camry he was working on was stolen from his shop. “I hear the story that there’s a master key,” Orosco says, “but I don’t know where [thieves] get it.” CP