The owner of an auto yard in Portland, Ore., has been accused of heading up a family-run ring of illegal tow truck drivers who were paid in cash for delivering stolen vehicles to be crushed for scrap.
Thirty-four people have been indicted in an investigation that began more than a year ago as police put surveillance cameras outside two auto yards in north Portland’s industrial district and identified 110 stolen vehicles, The Oregonian reported.
Tony Dreu Schneider Sr., 51, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of racketeering, money laundering, theft and fraud,
“He’s the person we see at the top,” Multnomah County prosecutor Kevin Demer said in court.
His two sons pleaded not guilty Thursday to racketeering and other charges.
Indictments handed up earlier this month say Schneider ran an auto yard and his two sons ran a car-crushing business.
Police Bureau investigators said a network of illegal tow truck drivers picked up cars from Portland to Salem that were legally parked outside homes and businesses or disabled along the shoulders and exit ramps of freeways.
The vehicles were hauled to the yard of West Coast Car Crushing, where they were weighed and crushed, and the drivers would then take a weight slip to A-1 Light Truck & Van Parts to be paid in cash even though they had no titles or ownership documents required by law, investigators said.
The indictments say that among the victims were large metal recyclers Rivergate Scrap Metal and Schnitzer Steel Products.
Among those accused is a former city employee who has pleaded guilty to official misconduct. Police say she got cash for tipping off a tow truck driver to cars the city marked as abandoned.
Detectives said they traced owners of the stolen vehicles by noting distinguishing characteristics listed in police reports – a white turtle hanging from a rearview mirror or distinctive bumper stickers.
Then they would try to match those characteristics to the 7,000 vehicles on the surveillance tapes between September 2013 and April.
A 1993 Taurus, for example, was towed without its license plates, but detectives said they identified it through its “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” sticker. Police said it had stalled on Interstate 5 and was stolen before its owners could retrieve it.
Portland carpet layer Daniel Speer said he found only broken glass where his 1991 Ford van had been parked in October 2013. He said all his tools, worth $3,000, were in the van. Police video showed it being towed to the car-crushing yard the next day. Court records showed a tow truck driver was paid $429.
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