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By Rob Painter, DABFE, ASE, CFL
Every day, hundreds of allegedly stolen vehicles are found burned. And every day, some of the adjusters reading the loss report and charged with handling the claim must decide if further investigation in warranted. The process is not as easy as it initially appears. The assigned fire investigator does not take a quick look-see and announce, “Yup, burned like a black potato chip.” There are so many aspects to consider when fraud is suspected. The following report, taken from an actual case, reveals some of what is involved in the initial investigative stages.
Report to: ABC Insurance Company
Insured: Johnson, Frederick
Contact: Jim Smith
Claims office: Podunk, USA
Type of Veh: G2500 Van
Date of first contact: 5/00 Stock # 22954
Preliminary report date: 5/00 Mileage: 150,030
Preliminary Report Summary:
The steering column shows no signs of external force on the left side of the column. The only item in question at this time is the operation of the ignition lock cylinder which will be further evaluated as soon as all sets of the insured’s keys are obtained. It appears to have a great amount of wear.
The odometer indicates 150,030 miles on the vehicle.
In my opinion, the condition of the cooling system was poor. The transmission fluid indicates possible damage to the transmission due to the appearance and burned odor of the fluid.
Questionable fire/soot damage. A great amount of soot was not noted in the console or dash area other than the speedometer lens. There is no explanation for this condition at this time.
The factory installed stereo was still in the vehicle although it had been partially removed.
The only components that appear to be missing are the seats, bed and possibly the TV. The power seat pedestals are still in place.
Overall condition of the vehicle appears to reflect the actual mileage.
Mr. Jim Smith of the ABC Special Investigation Unit located in Podunk, USA, made contact on Wednesday morning May 3, 2000.
The purpose of this phone call was to request a preliminary examination of the above named vehicle to determine if the steering column locking mechanisms had been tampered with and if the vehicle could have been last operated without the use of a proper key. The vehicle was located at Clinton Auto Pool, in Clinton, USA.
Mr. Smith received a forwarded outline of my understanding of the work requested and, if the steering column locks were not defeated, it was understood that a mechanical evaluation of the vehicle would be performed.
On Thursday, May 4, 2000, at 13:15 I left my office to go to Clinton USA. Based on the provided information, I carried camera equipment and minimal tools.
Smith stated that according to the insured’s signed documentation that the vehicle had approximately 86,000 miles at the time of the theft. Mr. Smith also informed me that the vehicle had minor interior fire damage. According to Smith, the steering wheel was unlocked and it may have possible damage to the left side of the steering column.
I arrived at the Clinton Auto Pool at 14:00, checked in at the desk and had the vehicle brought to a location on the lot where I could inspect it. The vehicle was brought to an inspection site with a fork lift.
I verified the VIN provided by Smith with the door pillar tag. I then verified the stock number. I took photos of the outside of the vehicle from 4 different angles. I could not verify mileage at that time because the speedometer lens was covered in soot on the inside.
I opened the doors (driver’s, passenger’s and passenger side doors) to air out the vehicle. Smith stated that cause and origin of the fire had been completed and it was listed as incendiary. Combustible materials had been placed in the rear of the van and ignited.
I observed that the smaller sliding glass in the bay window, directly behind the driver’s door, had been shattered. Glass shards were lying on the window sill in the interior. The window frame appeared to have prying damage, which possibly caused the bending of the metal window frame.
Upon examination of the interior of the vehicle, I observed that the seats and the bed had been removed. The stereo (factory Am/fm cassette EQ) was lying on top of the engine cover with the wood frame still attached. The stereo was secured to the vehicle by its wiring and no other mechanical connection. The middle part of the dash, where the stereo is normally mounted, was damaged. The center console, directly below the stereo, had also been broken off and was lying on the floor.
The power pedestals for the seats in the front were still in place.
I then examined the steering column for possible damage. On the left side of the steering column, I found that there was a piece not in place. It was the second part of the two piece high beam actuator. The first piece was lying directly under the steering column. It is very common for this cover to come off when actuating the high beams and serves as a cosmetic part and has nothing to do with defeating the column locking mechanisms. I observed no external damage to the left side of the steering column, which would indicate the possible defeat of the locking mechanisms on this Saginaw steering column.
I checked to see if the steering wheel was locked. It was not. This, in itself, has no bearing on the engine being started without a key. It is my opinion, based on my background, training and experience in this style of steering column that debris will occasionally get inside of the lock pin and bushing causing the lock pin to not pop up and lock the steering wheel. I looked for damage to the right side of the steering column along the lock cylinder area. I noticed the top thumb tab had been broken off the ignition lock cylinder. The lock cylinder was in the “lock” position and I could not move it to any other position by hand. I attempted to examine the keyway and lock cylinder wafers with an Otoscope. I was unable to perform a proper examination of the keyway because of its location in proximity to the engine cover. The lock cylinder did not appear normal. It had possible damage of some sort because of the position of the first observable wafer. It was my opinion that the column should be disassembled and ignition lock assembly should be removed for further examination. Based on my preliminary examination, at this point I felt it appropriate to examine the complete vehicle for further observable mechanical damage.
After opening the hood, I removed the engine oil dipstick and examined the condition of the oil. The oil appeared to be dirty and approximately one quart low. I removed the automatic transmission dipstick and visually examined the transmission fluid. It appeared excessively dirty and had a burned odor. I examined the radiator overflow bottle and it was empty and the interior of the bottle appeared to be coated with rust. I opened the radiator cap and observed fluid that appeared to be a muddy brown color. The fluid should have been green. At this time I also looked for any type of maintenance stickers under the hood, in the door jambs and on the inside of the windshield. I observed none. The primary positive battery cable appeared to have been cut. I observed an after market alarm siren and checked under the dashboard for alarm wiring. Based on my examination at that time, it appeared that at some unknown time the vehicle had a starter disable circuit, but that had been cut and bypassed when the alarm was removed. While examining the alarm wires, one of the butt connectors leading to the starter wires fell off as a result of an improper crimp. The only remnants to the alarm I observed under the dash were the valet switch and the LED (Light Emitting Diode). I was unable to locate any alarm control module. I examined the balance of the vehicle’s overall condition. In my opinion, the rear cargo doors were excessively rusted and possibly locked. The rear interior of the van appeared to be the primary area of fire damage. Based on my examination of the vehicle at this time, it was my opinion that this vehicle had more than the stated 86,000 miles on the odometer and that the odometer should be removed, cleaned and examined. At 15:00 I prepared to leave the Clinton Auto Pool. I called Mr. Smith on my car phone and provided him with my findings. I stated that I felt that I should return and remove the ignition lock cylinder for further forensic keyway analysis. I stated that I wanted to remove the smoke filled speedometer lens to verify mileage. I also wanted to check to see if the engine could be started. He authorized my continuing the investigation of the vehicle.
I arrived back at my office at about 16:15 after dropping off film for developing. On Friday, May 5, 2000, I left my office at 14:15 and arrived at the Clinton Auto Pool at 15:00 for a further examination of the vehicle. The vehicle was brought out to me with a fork truck for the second exam. I began my removal of the upper parts of the steering column to remove the ignition lock assembly and to examine column parts. All operations were photographically documented during the process. The horn pad was removed and then the steering wheel. The next items removed were the lock plate and cancel cam. The steering wheel locking pin was in the undeployed position and appeared to be stuck in the bushing of the upper lock housing cover from debris. As stated before, this was not the result of defeating the steering column locks but as a result of improper maintenance. I removed the turn signal switch assembly along with the 4-way flasher button. The key buzzer was then removed and the hardened ignition lock cylinder retaining screw. I then removed the ignition lock cylinder. I observed what appeared to be a very heavy collection of brass residue in the ignition lock cylinder hole in the upper lock housing cover. I photographed this area. The lock cylinder was then placed in a box and stored for evidence. I attempted to determine why the steering wheel lock pin was not functioning properly and to check other internal components of this steering column. I removed the three screws holding the upper lock housing cover and removed it. On the left side of the steering column I observed that the lock pin did not deploy because the sector spring which attaches to the lock pin and the rack sector had popped off. The lock pin appeared to be binding in the bushing because of debris and had caused this. I then checked the rack and ignition actuator rod for any type of damage that would be consistent with defeating the locking mechanisms in this Saginaw column. I found no damage. I removed the lower dash for further examination of any alarm wiring and to reconnect the starter wire that had come loose previously as a result of a poor connection. I removed the custom wood from the speedometer lens area and removed the two screws that held the lens in its housing. I removed the soot-covered lens and observed that the odometer indicated 150,030 miles. At this time, I was unable to determine why there was an excessive amount of soot in this area of the vehicle. The fire had allegedly been confined to the rear interior of the vehicle. I observed minor soot damage on the door panels, very little soot in the steering column or the under dash wiring and yet this lens was very thick with internal soot coating. I attached a portable battery pack to the battery in an attempt to determine if I could get the engine to crank. I removed insulation from the cut primary cable and attached the battery pack. When I physically operated the ignition switch, placing it in the “run” position, both the front and rear heater blowers were observed to be operating. I turned them off and tried to start the engine. All it did was click. I had voltage to the starter, but the engine would not turn over. This could be for one of three reasons. Either I just could not get a good enough connection at the battery, the starter could be defective or the engine was possibly seized as a result of some unknown mechanical failure. At 16:00 I left the Clinton Auto pool. Prior to leaving, I showed the lady at the desk the lock cylinder I was taking as evidence and she noted this on her records. I called Mr. Smith on my cellular phone and got his voice mail. He called me back at 16:15 and I reported my findings at this point. I suggested that he have fluid samples taken by an independent laboratory from this vehicle to check for mechanical wear. He also stated that he would get the operating keys from the insured. I told him I needed all sets for forensic evaluation to compare them to the ignition lock cylinder and wafers. The phone call ended at about 16:23. I arrived at my office at 17:00. I did a preliminary analysis on the ignition lock cylinder. I observed that the first two wafer springs were bent and twisted and the first wafer appeared to be improperly positioned. I then compared the inside of this lock cylinder to a brand new one and observed possible damage to the original. The damage observed does not appear to be consistent with the use of a pick, rake or as a result of tampering. It appeared, at the time of examination, to be a result of excessive wear. This is a preliminary examination. I have not performed an internal examination of the lock cylinder at this point.
I will not proceed with a further, in depth, examination of the lock cylinder until I receive the insured’s keys. The examination concluded at 18:00 on May 5, 2000.
Should further information become available after the completion of this examination that may be pertinent to this file, please forward it to my office for review and possible further action.
Based on the above findings, the adjuster arranged for some additional investigation. Not surprisingly, that investigator discovered the client, two days before the discovery of the stolen and burned vehicle, had obtained a $3800 quote from a local garage to replace the engine. The adjuster also learned that the same insured had suffered a similar loss five years earlier. A deposition of the insured was ordered and numerous discrepancies became apparent. The file was turned over to the prosecutor and charges were filed. The insured eventually received a probationary sentence and was ordered to make restitution of all investigative costs incurred by the insurance company.
Rob Painter, DABFE, ASE, CFL, is a Forensic Vehicle Component Analyst Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Examiners Certified Forensic Locksmith, ASE Certified Auto, Collision, Med/Hvy Duty Truck Technician, Certified Auto theft and Fraud Expert. He can be reached at (414) 384-6708.
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