At one of the tow lots used by Metro, on the north side of town, about 20 burned-out cars are lined up between a wall and two semi trailers. They are a ghastly bunch of prehistoric wrecks, stripped of color, as if dyed in acid; paint and leather and plastic burned away, doors and hoods twisted like flailing tongues, leaving behind engine wires, the thin skeletons of car seats and wheels impossibly melted. The cars are, literally, shells, but the fact of their continuing metallic presence, the fact they are still recognizably cars, makes one thing clear: Destroying a car by fire is a bitch.
No one knows this better than the cops who work Metro’s auto-theft detail. With the economy worsening, they’re seeing more people trying to burn their own cars to collect insurance money or get out from under payments they can no longer make.
Metro handles about one vehicle burn per day. The North Las Vegas Fire Department handles about three burned cars a week, and has seen the total increase 50 percent over the last two years. The Bureau of Land Management handles about five a month.
“The numbers are definitely telling,” says Metro Sgt. Will Hutchings. And they’re rising. “With the loss of jobs comes the need to downsize. They look at arson as a way to do that,” Hutchings says. All types of cars are meeting their match, but when gas prices were high, Humvees and other guzzlers were particularly prone to be ignited.
“A lot of people will do this because they don’t want the hit on their credit,” he adds. But instead, victims get nailed with charges such as arson, insurance fraud and conspiracy. They face years of probation (prison time is rare) and thousands in restitution fees, and they’re still on the hook for the payments they were trying to elude.
Cars suffer a variety of fates in the Valley. They pop up in ditches off Blue Diamond. They’re driven off cliffs, plunged into Lake Mead—a diving school found that one—and left to die in the far corners of Red Rock Canyon. One woman beat the hell out of her car with a bat. A hiker found a Land Rover lodged in a hard-to-reach ravine in the Sheep Mountains; its windows had been broken and the car stuffed with brush to hide it.
Most cars are burned at the edges of the city—the extreme southwest, the extreme southeast, the extreme northwest. But they also turn up in industrial quarters of the city. And they are generally the work of amateurs. “None of them know what they’re doing,” says Detective Joe McGill. “They’re amateurs at handling flammable substances. The ones who aren’t getting hurt are just lucky.”
Vegas has no shortage of dummies. A 20-year-old woman had her hair singed off and burns to half her face after trying to set her car afire, and she still pressed cops with a fantastic story that someone had carjacked her and then threw gasoline on her face. A couple, trying to get out from under three homes in foreclosure, torched their Toyota Prius; unfortunately for them, witnesses saw them driving back to town in their other car.
But even when you pull it off—burn that thing real good—eventually someone’s gonna find out you’re the owner. And the cops will come, and you’ll have to convince them that the car was stolen and that whoever stole the car torched it. Why would they do that? the cops might ask. If someone’s gonna steal your car, it’s probably either to commit a crime and then ditch it, or to strip it for parts.
“They’re not good liars,” says McGill, “especially to police. They get tripped up in their stories.” After all, these aren’t criminals. These folks are you. And me. Schoolteachers, maids, real-estate brokers (lots of people in real estate).
The only thing going for folks who burn their cars is numbers. As McGill puts it, the cops cannot “investigate every burn. We don’t have the budget, manpower, time ...” So they might focus on how long a car has been stolen, the type of vehicle, the time of day, the location or none of the above. “Everything plays a factor, and nothing plays a factor.”