Atlanta police believe Ronald Thomas used new technology to steal as many as 150 cars, trucks and SUVs over the past few years and would call police from time to time with an anonymous tip of abandoned vehicles so APD would clear his lot and make room for more.
The Atlanta Police Department said Thomas, at 32 with 37 arrests on his record, was using new technology to steal mostly expensive SUVs like Cadillac Escalades, Chevrolet Tahoes and GMC Yukons and then sell them for parts. Motors and transmissions would be taken out of state but tires and fancy rims were sold along Atlanta streets.
Police said he used a device to tap into the vehicles' computers so he could start the engines without using keys.
Detective Stephen O'Hare of APD's auto theft task force said this is the first time police in the Atlanta area have seen cars stolen with the help of such a device, which is slightly larger than a cell phone and is plugged into the on-board diagnostic ports in the SUVs. He declined to say if Thomas made the device or if he bought it.
Police found the remains of 16 SUV's on Monday when they raided two abandoned properties where Thomas had squatted. They had been watching him for a week, based on information from an informant. They had planned to keep him under surveillance for two weeks but moved sooner when he brought five more SUVs that were stolen Friday and Saturday night.
Thomas is charged with 16 counts of theft by receiving stolen property, two counts of operating a chop shop and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
O'Hare said the case right now just charges Thomas with stealing 16 SUVs but they expect it to be expanded to include 40 to 50 vehicles that were taken in the past six months.
Eventually, O'Hare said, police may find he took more than 100 vehicles, maybe closer to 150, in the past four or five years.
APD estimates Thomas had made more than $500,000 selling the parts.
Sgt. Jack Bentley said police suspect that it was Thomas who made periodic anonymous calls to report stripped down SUV's crowded into the parking lots at abandoned warehouses. The calls would prompt police to have the nuisance vehicles removed.
But they aren't certain it was him yet
"Somebody calls. That's how he clears his lots," Bentley said
They think Thomas was also playing "a joke on police" when made those calls.
Most of the time Thomas worked alone though he did sometimes have help breaking down vehicles, O'Hare said, declining to say anything about any other suspects.
He would simply move into warehouses that were abandoned and seemingly forgotten.
And he moved often.
"He was a very paranoid individual," O'Hare said. "We were told (at any) hint of law enforcement, he will cut bait and leave a location."
Parts and the skeletons of four of five SUVs he allegedly stolen from East Point parking lots on Friday and Saturday were still at a warehouse on Wendell Drive in southwest Atlanta when police descended on it on Monday. One SUV was still intact.
Thomas, already on probation for a Fulton County robbery, tried to run but he was found hiding under a 1986 Chevrolet Caprice parked behind the warehouse, police said.
Police said he would take the cars during the night time hours. His territories were East Point, College Park and Fulton County outside any city limits as well as the Midtown, Buckhead and Downtown neighborhoods in Atlanta. The vehicles were not stolen home driveways but from parking lots at hotels and other businesses.
Thomas allegedly targeted high-end SUVs with fancy wheels and entertainment systems.
The SUVs and parts discovered during the Monday raid had all be taken since July 4 and in those cases the owners and insurance companies will be notified that the vehicles have been recovered even though they are now useless.
Usually, owners never know what happened when their cars are stolen for parts.
Staff writer Mike Morris contributed to this article.
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