Car Country, USA

In Southern Arizona, confiscated cars mean big bucks for government agencies and contractors--and watchdogs say the system's being abused

Ron Armstrong is a slender fellow, and he's plucking, stork-like, at stiff wire wrapped around the bent wheel of a battered Minnie Winnie. Only a week earlier, he says, this melancholy RV was careening across the rugged outback, shoe-horned with undocumented aliens and pursued by the Border Patrol. Before that, it was a pleasure rig for an unlucky Tempe couple.

Today, it's just a certifiable piece of crap.

"Can you believe this?" says Armstrong, town clerk for Huachuca City, which has impounded the Winnebago on a windy lot near Highway 90. "They even rolled over an electric fence wire. There were 40 or 41 UDAs (undocumented aliens) in here when it was stopped between Huachuca City and Sonoita. The smugglers ran it down a dirt road and off into the desert."

Indeed, broad swaths of the Minnie Winnie's corpus delicti are bruised, bashed or simply sheared away. Inside, the destruction is complete: doors hanging cock-eyed, the kitchen table and seats ripped away, and electric tendrils peeking from behind shredded wall panels.

Bob Fenimore is Huachuca City's burly fire chief. He glances at Armstrong, hooks a thumb in his red suspenders and clicks his tongue at how this RV has been abused. "A real mess," Fenimore says. "I figure the insurance company will probably just total it."

Armstrong nods. "The owners were in the pool when it was stolen. They didn't even know it was gone."

As a result, at least for the time being, Huachuca City has added the Minnie Winnie to its cadre of tortured vehicles on this municipal lot circled by high chain-link. Twenty feet away sits an El Camino with a blown-out passenger compartment (to accommodate additional bodies), and a scruffy GMC minivan sulks in a far corner.

Some of the lot's residents are long-termers, including a Toyota 4-Runner with its droopy ass-end aimed at the highway. "That one's been here since March 2002," says Fenimore. "We're still waiting on paperwork from the Motor Vehicle (Division)."

Nonetheless, these assorted machines--whether good, bad or ugly--represent a small fortune for the 1,830 residents of this burg that clings to either roadside just north of Sierra Vista. When the number of vehicles reaches critical mass, they are auctioned off. And last year, that meant 144 cars and trucks added $202,000 to Huachuca City's annual budget of around $1 million.

Then come the little extras--like the clean Chevy Tahoe enjoying its new life as the fire department's go-fer rig.

Huachuca City is only the tip of the borderland's vehicular iceberg. Confiscated or abandoned smugglers' cars breed like rabbits in this rumpled desert. They populate bulging lots, spill out of backyards and slumber in remote washes. Decrepit Oldsmobiles peer from ramshackle sheds, and peeling pickups rest in shallow, roadside ditches.

Down here, the real junkers wait out their final days in bountiful silence, their date with the crusher delayed only by necessary paperwork from the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department. But better vehicles can contribute to budgets in communities stretching from Douglas and Nogales to Benson. Often, the machines are seized by police and processed through respective county attorneys' offices under state organized crime statutes--laws popularly modeled after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

Even the Arizona Attorney General's Office is getting into the action, after prodding its own immigrant-smuggling RICO law through the Legislature. Nicknamed the "Coyote Bill," the law extends the office more power to pursue people-smuggling cases as organized crime, and more leeway to seize cars, houses, money and other assets.

On the other hand, vehicles seized by federal agents boost U.S. Treasury coffers with big auctions, such as a recent sale in Nogales that netted $1.1 million. There's certainly no lack of inventory: Last year alone, the Border Patrol seized 32,000 vehicles nationwide, says agency spokesman Luis Gonzalez. In fiscal year 2003-2004, agents in the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol--which includes Cochise and Santa Cruz Counties--seized 352 vehicles. And those numbers keep rising. An aggressive, cooperative effort between local, state and federal officials resulted in 6,200 vehicles being seized since October 2004 in Southern Arizona.

Of course, this deluge of largely unclaimed property offers great potential for abuse. According to Jim Cooper, a longtime Cochise County border activist, many borderland vehicles follow a murky path.

"All the towing companies have cars on their lots," says Cooper. "Or the cars are handed out to other private people, who have one or two sitting in the back of their lot, kind of hidden. They're just waiting for the time to pass" before they can file for abandoned vehicle titles.

"Most of the vehicles were confiscated from illegals, and generally the people who now have them don't even have clear title," says Cooper. "Maybe the owner got deported right away, or is in detention somewhere and can't be found. For example, there's an old Tombstone rancher I ran into who even had a couple of vehicles himself. They stalled right in front of his house, and he just towed them onto his property."

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol "parcels out the vehicles to towing companies as goodies. They just get the cops to sign off that a car was abandoned, and that they've had it for 90 days. Then they can go apply for abandoned title."

Indeed, U.S. Government Accountability Office reports have criticized the slipshod way federal agencies often handle seized property. But oversight pressures only spark shifts in methods, says Cooper.

"It used to be pretty loose. Now they require that you have a local police officer with jurisdiction in that area sign the car off. But the cops do, especially for their friends and buddies."

According to the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department, 20 abandoned title applications were filed in Santa Cruz County during a single eight-day period in July--and 54 were filed during the same period in Cochise County. Multiplied over a year, that amounts to 1,040 abandoned vehicle filings in Santa Cruz County and nearly 3,000 vehicles per annum in Cochise.

But law enforcement agencies deny that any cars cruise below the official radar. Every transfer is carefully monitored, says the Border Patrol's Luis Gonzalez from his Washington, D.C., office.

"There are safeguards in place to make sure vehicles are not just given away. And of course, there are statutory regulations" prohibiting such transfers, he says. "If a vehicle is found in a smuggling operation, it must be (formally) seized. If it were discovered that a vehicle was just handed off to a local rancher who was a friend of the (Border Patrol) agent, that agent is facing severe disciplinary action, including termination."

Others oppose the entire RICO movement that has swept the country in recent years--and resulted in mass seizures of property considered part of organized crime organizations such as smuggling rings. Since forfeitures are civil cases and thus require a lower threshold of proof than criminal cases, seizures can occur without any arrests. In fact, according to a mid-1990s series by the Tribune Newspapers, nearly 75 percent of people who suffer property forfeitures are never charged with a crime. And of every six people who had their property seized, at least one was an innocent third party.

Little has changed since that report, according to Tim Keller, an attorney with the watchdog group Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, or FEAR.

"I strongly suspect that a large number of individuals on the receiving end of a forfeiture still are never charged with a crime," he says, calling money RICO's driving force. "There's no doubt that local governments and law enforcement are heavily supplementing their budgets with assets forfeiture. We think the profit incentive inherent in the RICO scheme is a violation of the due process clause of the federal and state constitutions."

At the same time, forfeitures typically nail only small-time crooks, he says. For example, Arizona's attorney general's office "sold RICO to the Legislature as a powerful tool allowing law enforcement to break the back of organized crime or the drug lords. But those sophisticated criminals have the ability to hide their assets from law enforcement. So it's the small individual who ends up on the receiving end of forfeitures. And instead of the forfeitures being large, they are often small--$4,000 or $5,000 at a time."

But that's enough to break "the average citizen who can't afford to hire an attorney and pay $4,000 or $5,000 to try to get their property back," Keller says. "And the burden of proof is on the citizen to establish that they're the innocent owner of the property. Law enforcement should be fair and impartial. But when you place the burden of proof on the citizen, that shows it's an unfair system rigged in favor of the government."

Not surprisingly, Richard Travis disagrees. A special assistant in the Arizona AG's office, he says the so-called "Coyote Bill" is long overdue.

"We saw a change from folks moving from drug smuggling to human smuggling, and violence surrounding the drug trade was just moving into human trafficking."

Legal strategies simply weren't keeping up, he says. "For the bad actor, you've got some pretty severe penalties with regards to drug smuggling. All the RICO issues--the seizure of your car, your house, your bank account. And it's a pretty long prison term for drugs."

But when RICO couldn't be used against immigrant smugglers, "our attorneys were seeing a frustrating number of cases where there were large bank accounts from involvement in criminal activity, either drugs or smuggling. But without RICO to apply to both, sometimes it was difficult to bring a case.

"Really, the impetus of the bill was to try to curb human smuggling, to try to get these coyotes out of our communities," Travis says, "because of all the violence they are bringing with it."

And innocent people do have plenty of recourse, says Santa Cruz County Attorney Martha Chase. Owners receive a written notice when their property is seized, and "they're not being precluded from the legal process of trying to get the car back."

Proceeds from forfeitures go right back into fighting crime, Chase says. "We average about four auctions a year, and we usually average about 30 cars per auction." That pumps between $150,000 and $200,000 per year into the county's anti-racketeering coffers. "For the most part, I use those funds to buy law enforcement equipment, such as vehicles. We've gotten some new communication equipment, and (the revenue) pays an employee who manages all the assets in the fund.

"If we didn't have that money, we'd be asking for it from the county's general fund because the equipment (it buys) is essential."

Given the new seizure juggernaut--and law enforcement's expanding powers--it's hardly surprising that an entire industry has sprung up around abandoned and seized vehicles. At least a dozen tow companies dot little Santa Cruz County, while rural Cochise County is home to nearly 30. And competition is fierce, as they fight for lucrative towing contracts from local governments, state cops and federal agencies.

In the borderland's tumultuous tow trade, politics also play a powerful role. Take the Barnetts, owners since 1963 of Barnett's Towing in Sierra Vista. So venerable is the company that founder Roger Barnett was recently inducted into the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame in Chattanooga, Tenn. As such, his name joins a global cadre of top haulers with addresses ranging from Poland and Germany to Mexico's Monterrey.

But Roger Barnett has also gained notoriety for harassing illegal immigrants caught traipsing across his Cross Rail Ranch near Douglas--activities that may have been a bit hot for the feds. His son Troy now runs the company. And Troy Barnett says he received a call a few days before the big Nogales auction from Brian Scanlon, district manager for EG&G Technical Services. Based in Manassas, Va., EG&G stores and auctions seized property nationwide for federal agencies.

According to Barnett, Scanlon told him to bring his Border Patrol-seized cars in early, and that Barnett's services would no longer be needed because of his father's high vigilante profile. "That's what Brian Scanlon told me," says Troy, "and that he'd deny saying it if he were asked."

Attempts to contact Brian Scanlon for comment were unsuccessful. But EG&G spokeswoman Britney Sheehan says that politics "don't play a part" in EG&G contracts. Instead, the Barnetts no longer work for her company simply "because their contract expired."

But that's not Troy Barnett's only beef: He's also considering legal action against nearby Huachuca City for unfair competition. And he's fed up with junk--from government tow calls--cluttering his otherwise tidy business about a mile east of Fort Huachuca's main gate.

Local tow companies are on a government rotation list, he says, "and we have to take what they give us. Many times, the vehicles have no value at all. But they still have to sit in our possession for 60 or 90 days. It forces us to be trash collectors."

Down in the Mule Mountains, on the ramshackle outskirts of Bisbee, a metal gate clinks in a slight fall breeze. Here at the storage yard for Bisbee Towing, a few beater sedans bake in the sun, alongside an old Jeep and a silent Ford truck. A crumpled Cadillac Coupe de Ville nestles against the chainlink fence, its hood cocked upwards like a crooked grin.

To the Caddy and many of its hulking kin, this lot is a dead-end. A few lucky vehicles--those with a residue of life--might find new homes where they can live out their final days in dignity, but for many of these cars, only the grim crusher awaits.

And that's exactly the problem, says Kevin Dunlap, owner of Bisbee Towing. At the moment, he's a couple of miles from the lot, chatting up a pair of state troopers in the shade of his Chevron station. A fire-plug of a guy with wrap-around glasses and a cropped shock of red hair, Dunlap is under a towing contract with the city of Bisbee. For this, he pays a $25-per-tow fee, along with a $10 administration charge. He gets to keep the cars, but claims the city makes him tow junk, while Bisbee cops impound the nicer vehicles. "It's bullshit," he says.

It's also a touchy issue here in Bisbee, after a dust-up in 2000 when residents accused local cops of profiling Hispanics and stopping sweet rides to add to the city's profitable auction yard. Over a five-year period, the city sold more than 1,500 vehicles and raked in more than $1 million. But when the outcry became a roar, the city voted itself out of the car business--while denying the profiteering charges. "It was never about racial profiling, and it was never about the money. It has always been about enforcing Arizona law," Bisbee Police Sgt. Phil Eastburn said at the time.

These days, that car and truck largesse has supposedly shifted to private towing companies--in this case, Kevin Dunlap and his Bisbee Towing. But Dunlap has just trotted into his station and returned with a copy of The Bisbee Observer newspaper. "Look at this crap," he says, pointing to two police notices on the back page.

And those notices do seem to make his point:

Sept. 8: Four UDA's were located near Jonquil Motel and turned over to the Border Patrol. The vehicle was impounded by the police.

Sept. 10: Twelve UDAs were located in a vehicle which was stopped near the Bisbee Boy (sic) and Girls Club. They were turned over to Border Patrol and police impounded their vehicle.

"See what I mean?" Dunlap says. "My contract says I tow all the cars. I'm on call 24-7, and I just end up with junk. And the police say they're keeping those vehicles for evidence. What kind of evidence? For UDAs? Yeah, right."

For his part, City Manager Rob Yandow calls Dunlap "a bit of a complainer." But Yandow is adamant that Bisbee is no longer in the car trade: "Every vehicle we have towed, Kevin tows."

As for seized vehicles, "we may drive them back" to the storage lot, he says. "But we're not impounding vehicles for the same reasons we were before. Even when we take a vehicle in for evidence, it may be impounded for RICO purposes. But it's not impounded just because we found UDAs in it and there's no proof of insurance. If we stop a vehicle like that, we call Kevin Dunlap, and that's why he has a lot of vehicles in his lot. "

Yandow is right on the money, says Bisbee Police Chief Jim Elkins. 'I'd estimate that out of a hundred calls, only four or five don't go to Bisbee Towing."

An hour away in Benson, Brandy Macias enjoys happier hauling times. And sometimes the work even gets interesting, says the co-owner of Big Dave's Towing & Roadside Service. While abandoned cars are always "crappy cars," she says, better stuff comes from the Border Patrol. "If you can get on their contract, that's really good. If we tow it and then we get storage, it's so much per day plus the tow."

But if someone wants to reclaim a vehicle, "they have to show a driver's license and registration," Macias says. The criminals "will try to change the name on the title, change it over to a friend, so they can come in and get it. Many of them are longtime smugglers, and they try all kinds of stuff." And that's when Big Dave's calls the Border Patrol, "and they get arrested all over again.

"Still, it's sort of a bum deal for the ones who aren't doing (illegal activity)," she says. "Some of them will get deported back to Mexico even if they have papers."

The Border Patrol pays $25 a day for storage, Macias says. "And if they don't come and get it within 10 days, by law, we have to file (for abandoned title). In-state titles will come in 30 to 60 days. If titles are out-of-state, it can take years. We have a vehicle that's been here for three years now. It's a piece of crap, too. All we want is the title so we can crush it."

There are also a few perks in the towing trade: "I have a 2002 Ventura van, a 2000 Ford Contour and a maroon Mazda 626 sports car--all leather interior, all electric, perfect condition," she says. "Blue Book has it at $6,500. Everything works, nothing wrong with it. But the previous owners, they were involved in smuggling drugs, so they lost it."

And there are other losers in the car racket, as witnessed on a clear day in early September when a crowd of 1,200 gathered in Nogales to buy government-auctioned machines. The weather was hot and so was the bidding--buyers were urged to speed things along by paying in large bills. Thus, stacks of $100s bought rigs ranging from an $11,500 Lincoln Navigator to a $4,500 Dodge Ram. When the dust cleared, more than a million dollars had changed hands, and the entire event was marked as a big success for EG&G Technical Services.

But things got dicier a few days later, when a Nogales couple drove into Motor Vehicle to register their new government-auction van--and discovered it had been stolen in May from Glendale. Now they'll wait two months to get a refund from EG&G. "It was a terrible experience," the unidentified man told the Nogales International newspaper. "What would have happened if we had gone to Nogales, Sonora, and came back, not knowing we were driving a stolen van?"

For their part, EG&G is cagey regarding the questionable van. "I think that's a procurement issue," says Britney Sheehan of EG&G. In other words, responsibility lies with the vehicle's procurer, namely the U.S. Border Patrol.

The vehicle's identification number had been copied incorrectly, says Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame. But his agency has since added a new, more extensive vehicle database, and an extra layer of title scrutiny before cars and trucks reach the auction block. "These two new methods verify the numbers," he says, "and they'll know if a number is put in wrong."

Meanwhile, back in Huachuca City, Ron Armstrong is closing the Minnie Winnie's sprung door. Then he heads for his own city car, a nice, coppery 1998 Dodge Intrepid. "Even this was a UDA vehicle," he says, turning the key. "It's a pretty good car, but it has some problems. Some of the electronic stuff--the windows don't always work--and it has a lot of miles.

"But hey," he says, wheeling toward Huachuca City Hall, "who can complain?"