Reynaldo Nazario had a twin sister, but she died when they were eight months old. His family soon realized that he was slower than most children. He didn’t walk until he was five. He didn’t know how to use his hands or feet. He couldn’t speak, because he didn’t know how to use his tongue. He took special-ed classes. The family lived in the Bronx, and didn’t have much money, but spent what they could on doctors and speech therapists. One doctor told them that half of Reynaldo’s brain worked fine but the other half worked at 40 percent of normal. He would never learn to read or write. “They say the other baby took away all the strength that he needed to have,” his older sister, Mercedes, says.
As an adult, Reynaldo could spell only his name, which he wrote in big capital letters. He had the mind of an eight-year-old, one doctor explained to the family. He was trusting and gullible. “If you tell him the sky is going to be green tomorrow, he’s gonna believe it’ll be green,” says his wife, Sylvia. He was eager to call someone a friend after two or three encounters. He was easily excited, even quicker to panic. He knew little about the world beyond what he saw and heard around him. And it seemed to him that life came easier to everybody else and there was nothing he could do about it.
But he could steal cars.
Reynaldo stole his first car when he was 14 and since then has stolen more than he can count. He was 24 the first time he was arrested for auto theft, in 2002. He spent a year and a half in state prison, then went back to stealing and getting caught. Over the next decade he did four more stints in prison for car theft. His longest stay was two years and 10 months. That time, the police caught him inside the stolen car. He was scared of going back to prison. All he could think about was how lonely and violent the place was. His heart was beating faster than he could ever remember it beating and his hands were shaking and sweaty. He turned the wheel and hit the gas pedal and the car hit a police officer and then another one and then crashed and pinned an officer against a parked car.
By May 2012, Reynaldo had spent nine of the previous 10 years locked up. He was 35 years old, with long ears, a long nose, a bald head, and arched eyebrows that gave him a look of perpetual curiosity. He was free on parole, and now things would be different. He married Sylvia, whom he had met eight years earlier while in prison, through a mutual friend. She wanted him to stop stealing cars and get a job. There weren’t many jobs out there for a five-time convicted felon who had no high school diploma and couldn’t read. But Reynaldo had grown up in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, and he knew some of the old-timers. He knew a man who owned a bodega, and the man hired Reynaldo to sweep and do other odd jobs. It paid $80 a week. That plus his $215 monthly public-assistance check wasn’t enough to cover the rent.
Reynaldo and Sylvia had planned to move in with his mother in the projects, but the housing authority barred convicted felons from living in the building. They applied for a room in the local shelter, but there were no family rooms available; Reynaldo would have had to live in the men’s shelter and Sylvia in the women’s. “God knows, she might get robbed or killed,” he explains. Reynaldo turned to a friend who knew the landlord of a building in Morrisania who had a small room to rent for $600. Sylvia was unemployed. The couple paid what they could and the landlord was understanding. But after three months he told them they’d have to leave if they couldn’t make the rent.
It was early August and Reynaldo needed $600 by the end of the month. Realistically, he needed more than that. His mother had diabetes and was on dialysis. She was also scheduled for a cancer screening. She lived off Social Security; he wanted to help her out.
Sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bodega, he felt the panic rising up. It was a hot day. People were coming in to and out of the store. A tow truck pulled up to the curb. The rumble from its engine went quiet and a man got out and walked into the store. Reynaldo looked inside and watched the man buy a soda. When the man returned, Reynaldo stopped him.
I need somebody to buy cars from me, he told the man. I need the money to pay my rent or I’ll be homeless.
The man nodded and said he had a friend who might be interested.
I got these cars from a friend of mine and I need to get rid of them, Reynaldo said.
I don’t care where the cars come from, the man said. You can pay your rent. You don’t have to live in the street.
The man said his name was José and that he’d call his friend and get back to Reynaldo. He called Reynaldo 30 minutes later. He said he would pick Reynaldo up the next day and they could take the car to his friend.
Now all Reynaldo needed was a car.
José called around 8:30 the next morning and said he would be on Reynaldo’s block in two hours. It had been a long night, but Reynaldo had been up since six, waiting for the call.
They hooked the 1994 Nissan Altima to the back of the tow truck. Reynaldo hopped in on the passenger’s side and José drove to Eastchester, in the northeast corner of the Bronx. Reynaldo was familiar with the area: This was the car capital of the Bronx. They cruised down Boston Road, through a corridor of auto-body shops and car dealerships. Auto King Transmission and Engine…Bruce Discount Tires and Brakes…Creative Auto Options…Apex Auto Dealers…Bronx Suzuki…Mavis Discount Tires…Souped-up imports lined the sidewalks. Men in blue jumpsuits carried wrenches and hubcaps and wiped their greasy hands on shop towels that hung from their waists. Drills buzzed and hammers banged and salsa music blasted. Then the road curved at the base of the Interstate 95 on-ramp and the bustle faded into a secluded stretch of sprawling lots. A tall yellow fence with barbed wire across the top boxed in the lot at the corner. Fenders and tires lay at the base of the fence. A man walked down the road carrying a windshield. Other men stood beside the popped hoods of battered, lifeless cars. A Mack truck with a flatbed trailer parked in front of a wide opening in the yellow fence. On the fence, painted in big green, red, and blue letters, was a sign: “New England Used Auto Parts/Junk Cars Wanted/We Pay Top Dollar.”
José stopped, unhooked the Nissan, and rolled it onto a steel scale near the fence. Inside, hundreds of flattened cars were piled into a scrap-metal mountain range. Every now and then a forklift jabbed in to pull out a stack of cars.
José walked into a small office behind the scale and came back out with a short, stout man. The man gave Reynaldo some papers and showed him where to sign. The top of the first paper read, “STATEMENT OF VEHICLE OWNER WHO DOES NOT HAVE A VALID TITLE.” And below that: “This statement may be used only by the vehicle owner who has not obtained a title in his/her name or has lost the title in his/her name. Only the vehicle owner may use this statement to transfer the vehicle described below to a registered vehicle dismantler, itinerant vehicle collector (IVC), or a certified scrap processor. The vehicle being transferred must be worth $1,250 or less and be at least eight model years old.”
This form was known as an MV-35. Decades ago, when abandoned cars littered New York City’s streets, the state legislature passed a law that made it easier for people to junk old cars. Of course, Reynaldo did not know this, nor did he understand what it said on the form. Even if he did, it wouldn’t have mattered. He scribbled his name where he was supposed to and the man handed him $450 in cash. “All I had to do is sign my name, nothing else,” Reynaldo says. “I don’t read.”
He was always looking for old cars, the man told Reynaldo. Customers often came to his junkyard hoping to buy parts on the cheap. Several mid-’90s models in particular were in high demand. The man gave Reynaldo his card, which showed that his name was Julio Baez and that he was the yard’s manager.
It used to be easier to steal cars. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, when Reynaldo was learning how, you could stick a counterfeit key into an ignition, take the car to one of the many chop shops around the city, come home with $800 or $900, and not have to worry about the law coming after you. In 1990, one of every 42 registered vehicles got stolen nationwide. New York City had it worst: That year about 147,000 cars in the city were stolen.
“It was an everyday occurrence,” says Joe Ranone, a lieutenant in the NYPD’s Auto Crimes Division in the early ’90s. “You park your car at midnight, wake up, and the car’s gone.”
Journalist Lucy Danziger described her experience in a 1993 New York Times op-ed headlined “New York, Car Theft Capital of the World.” Danziger watched as thieves on the Upper East Side took off with her car. A doorman across the street wrote down the tag number of a car that had been slowly circling the block before speeding off behind the stolen car. The lookout, Danziger concluded. Her phone bill listed outgoing numbers the thieves called from the car’s phone. But as she followed up with police, she got the runaround. The precinct told her to call the Auto Crimes Division. The Auto Crimes Division told her to call the precinct. And everyone she spoke with asked whether she had insurance; when she confirmed that she did, they’d say: Why worry about it, then? “Here’s the thing about crime,” Danziger wrote. “It pays.”
The police department had record-high rates of murders and rapes and armed robberies to deal with, which made auto theft a low priority. Usually there were no witnesses and no leads, and most owners were covered by insurance. “The police department was really lax on taking car-theft reports, and if they were really busy they wouldn’t even send the officer out,” Ranone says. “They didn’t waste their time with things like that.”
By the late ’90s, the auto industry was implanting microchips into keys, which made it impossible for a counterfeit key to start a car. Honda introduced the technology in 1998, and the statistics underline its effect: In 2013, seven times as many 1997 Honda Accords as 1998s were reported stolen — about 7,000 versus fewer than 1,000 — even though a thief stands to get less money for an older model. Anti-theft products like LoJack and OnStar acted as further deterrents. Insurance companies, seeking to minimize fraud, began reviewing theft claims more thoroughly than before. The federal government started requiring junkyards to log vehicles and their sellers into a computer database, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. Certain parts, like airbags, now bore a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), making them traceable and harder to sell. The NYPD, with a new focus on reducing lower-level crimes, dedicated more resources to investigating reports of stolen cars and cracking down on chop shops. By 2001, there were fewer than 30,000 auto thefts in New York City. In 2013 there were fewer than 7,500.
It was midmorning. Reynaldo preferred not to work at night. It violated his parole, for one thing. Darkness also brought suspicion. Nighttime was quiet and still. Every movement on the street stood out. “Nobody’s gonna think you’re gonna steal a vehicle in the day,” he says. “People aren’t paying attention. People got a lot of things to do. They’re gonna think it’s your vehicle. They’re not gonna think you’re gonna go up to a car and steal it in the middle of the day.”
He walked. He walked along his Franklin Avenue block. He walked up Third Avenue. He walked through all the narrow streets that connected the avenues. He walked across parking lots and around community-college campuses. He made his way south, through Melrose and Mott Haven. He glanced at the windshield of every Honda Accord he passed to see the white sticker that showed the car’s year. He didn’t plan to pass up a car stickered with an alarm system warning: Car alarms go off so often in cities that they don’t draw attention. And Reynaldo needed just seconds to pop the box under the dashboard and pull out the wires to shut off the alarm. If he saw a 1995 Accord with a LoJack or a club on the steering wheel, he kept going. “That just takes up time,” he says. “What I basically look for is something fast. Just any ordinary vehicle that a person bought from the dealership and don’t have time to put nothing on it, just uses it to go back and forth to work.”
Reynaldo walked for hours, into the early evening. He crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge and walked down Malcolm X Boulevard in East Harlem. Then he saw an Accord. It was a ’95, parallel-parked. He pulled a key ring out of his pocket. There were 10 keys on it, all from different makes and models: Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda. He had collected them over the years from junkyard owners and friends who’d sold a car but kept the spare. He’d shaved the keys on their flat sides. “I use sandpaper,” he says, “until the key turns yellowish. It only takes two minutes.”
He put the key in the Honda’s door, opened it, climbed in. He feared the owner might see him and shoot him, but by now he was numb to that fear. His hands were steady. He felt calm and focused, like a basketball player shooting a free throw. Muscle memory. People walked by on the sidewalk. That didn’t faze him. “Why should I be nervous when I have the key?” he says. He put the key into the ignition. “You just jiggle it a little.” The car started.
Reynaldo drove slowly and cautiously, slowly and cautiously, all the way to Yonkers. If the owner reported the car stolen tonight and the cops went out to look for it, they wouldn’t find it anywhere near Reynaldo. He turned onto a residential street lined with parked cars and eased the Honda into an open spot. He locked the doors, walked to the nearest thoroughfare, and hailed a cab.
When he got home, he called Julio. Then he lay back in his bed and turned on the TV. He felt happy. “I’m not saying it’s nothing good, nothing great, but hey, it puts food at the tables,” he says. “I’m real good at it.”
From the time he was a baby, Reynaldo was obsessed with keys. He liked their shape. He liked how shiny they were. He liked the noise they made when they jingled. He liked how there were so many different kinds. He grabbed every one he saw. “Like how a child grabs candy,” his sister, Mercedes, says. “When he started walking, nobody could leave a key around.” He didn’t play with toys or watch TV with the rest of his family. He sat and played with keys. He held them and turned them in his fingers. He stacked them and lined them up. When he was eight, he began collecting keys. He picked up discarded keys he found around the house or out on the sidewalk or in an alley. Relatives and family friends gave Reynaldo old keys. His collection grew. It filled a bucket.
He was attracted not only to the physical qualities of keys, but to what they represented, the way they allowed him to hold a piece of what he loved most. On many days he’d come home from school, pick out one of his keys, and use it to turn the washing machine into an imaginary car. He made engine noises and brake noises, even car-alarm noises, and he held conversations with his imaginary passengers. “That was his entertainment all the time,” Mercedes says.
The only TV shows he liked were The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. “I just love cars, the mechanics of them,” he says. “Since I was three years old.” His father was an auto mechanic, and he used to watch him work on cars. He lived with his father for a couple of years in his early teens, but grew up mostly living with his mother and stepfather. They drank and fought. His stepfather beat his mother. Reynaldo stayed out of the apartment as much as he could.
He dropped out of school at 14 and began hanging around on his block, where a group of young men would gather to work on cars. Their leader was a tall thirtysomething named Abraham. Every few days, it seemed, Abraham and his boys had a different car. Reynaldo watched them and listened to them, and they didn’t seem to mind the kid who kept hanging around. Sometimes his mother would walk up to the men and say, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you realize this boy has a problem?”
Little by little, Reynaldo picked up the men’s craft. He asked questions: How do you silence an alarm? How do you cut the key? Where you gonna take the car? “I would bug ’em so much, they said, ‘OK, listen, instead of you bugging, I’ma teach you,’ ” Reynaldo recounts. “Sometimes you watch somebody so much, they get so frustrated they would rather teach you so you stop asking them questions. I guess that’s how he felt.”
Abraham and his boys deemed Reynaldo a natural. He absorbed the lessons quickly and some weeks was boosting more than a dozen cars. “Everybody used to steal cars in those days,” he says. “The police didn’t really pay attention. It was so many people doing it, it was like a game.”
Sometimes he brought the cars to Abraham. More often he just drove them around awhile and abandoned them. His sister had told him that because he couldn’t read, he wouldn’t be able to take the test to get a driver’s license. Now he didn’t care. He felt a freedom he’d never felt before. “I didn’t have nobody to get me around,” he says. “All of a sudden, I could do my own thing.”
His family found out he could drive after a neighbor took him up on his offer to fix her car. Sometime later, the neighbor came outside and saw that the car was gone. Reynaldo had gotten it working and driven it around the block. His mother and sister scolded him. They also wondered how he’d done it — the car was a stick shift. They took him to a psychiatrist, who told them Reynaldo had a photographic memory.
“He could see things for the first time and it would stay in his mind and he would remember it,” Mercedes says. “Not learning, but remembering.”
Another time when Reynaldo was fixing a neighbor’s car, he blew out the engine. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you another car,” he told her. The next day he delivered. When the family confronted him about stealing cars, he denied it.
Then Mercedes’s new Honda went missing. When she asked Reynaldo if he knew anything about it, he admitted he’d taken it. Don’t worry, he told her: His friends were going to ship it to the Dominican Republic and he was going to get a lot of money for it, enough to buy her an even better car.
He told her how much he’d been promised. It wasn’t anywhere near what she’d paid for the Honda.
Car thieves adapted to the times. Some now use an electromagnetic tool that disrupts the lock systems of newer cars. “When this happens, there are no signs of forced entry,” says Carol Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “There is surveillance video of thieves basically walking up to a car and opening it like it’s their own.” Some thieves steal keys from rental-car companies and stick a GPS device to the corresponding vehicle so they can steal it once it leaves the lot. Some have simply turned to carjacking. In Newark, New Jersey, for instance, the number of carjackings more than doubled between 2009 and 2012, from 160 to 345. (Recent figures are not available for Newark, but the trend evidently continues: In all of Essex County, New Jersey, there were 200 carjackings in 2009, 450 in 2013.)
And then there are the luxury-vehicle theft rings. In December 2013, authorities in New York arrested 16 people with suspected ties to an organization that stole 311 cars worth a total $15.5 million. Police traced some of the cars to Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In February, authorities in New York and New Jersey arrested 29 people connected to the theft of more than 160 vehicles worth $8 million. Many of the cars ended up in Togo and Sierra Leone. Some went for $100,000. As prosecutors explained it, enterprises like these work as a team. Members have specific roles. A couple of people steal the cars, another person finds new license plates and VINs, another person forges the titles, another sells the cars to foreign buyers, another handles delivery. “The big thing now is shipping cars out of the country before the dealership has a chance to put a claim in,” says Ranone, the former NYPD lieutenant.
The game changed, but Reynaldo hadn’t.
Sometimes he got lucky within a day or two and found a car that would suit Julio, but usually he combed the Bronx and Harlem for several days, maybe a week or more. When he got the car, he called Julio. Sometimes the junkyard was full and Reynaldo had to wait a few days before delivering. Sometimes, when it seemed like police were on the prowl, Julio would send José to tow the car in. Each time, Reynaldo would sign the papers, pocket his $450, take a cab home. “They don’t ask questions” at the junkyard, he says. “You take it to them, they weigh it, you go on your way.”
Life became smoother for Reynaldo. He made rent. He and Sylvia ate OK. He bought movies, and many nights they lay in bed re-watching The Fast and the Furious, his favorite. As long as he could come up with cars, things were good. “But sometimes I got calls and I couldn’t really find nothing because there was nothing out there,” Reynaldo says. When he got desperate, he would work at night. At two or three in the morning, when Sylvia was asleep, he’d sneak out and search until sunrise. He didn’t want her to know he was still stealing cars. He worried he would lose her if she found out.
They’d met in 2005. She’d just gotten out of an abusive relationship, and her cousin said she knew a nice guy. Sylvia and Reynaldo began speaking on the phone and exchanging letters, which other inmates read and wrote for him. When he got out, she learned about his compulsions. He locked bedroom and closet doors because he enjoyed opening them with keys. He changed the lock to their front door four times within their first two months living together. He often stopped in the middle of a sidewalk to admire a car and rattle off every detail he knew about it. As far as habits went, Reynaldo’s weren’t too bothersome, Sylvia thought. “He doesn’t do drugs or drink or even smoke cigarettes,” she says. “Cars was his addiction.”
Now that he was back out of prison and living with her, though, she made it clear that he had to stop stealing. She didn’t think she could handle being without him again. Reynaldo promised, just as he’d promised many times before.
“But this is the way I gotta live,” Reynaldo says.
And so he always went back, and here he was, back again.
It took Reynaldo a week to find a 1994 Accord. The yard was full when he made the call, so he stashed the car in Yonkers and waited. A few days later, on the morning of Wednesday, October 23, 2012, Reynaldo got the call. Reynaldo took a cab to Yonkers and picked up the Accord. Back home, he called José. No answer, which was unusual. But José called five minutes later. He told Reynaldo where to meet him.
Reynaldo drove to the rendezvous. José was 20 minutes late. They hooked the Honda onto the truck and Reynaldo hopped in. A block down the street, José pulled over. “He just looked at me with a mean face,” Reynaldo says. “Right then and there I knew something was wrong.”
Unmarked police cars screeched to a halt around them. A half-dozen officers ran to the tow truck with guns aimed at Reynaldo. Reynaldo thought of Abraham, who had been killed by police during a shootout outside a Chinese takeout joint.
The Bronx district attorney charged Reynaldo with stealing 30 cars over the course of the prior 75 days. “There were several more, but we couldn’t go forward for lack of enough info (sometimes complaining witnesses back out, etc., especially when they realize they won’t be able to get anything back for these vehicles, e.g., restitution),” Terry Raskin, a spokesman for the D.A.’s office, wrote in an email to the Voice.
Reynaldo called Sylvia from jail. “I’m screwed,” he told her. The NYPD Auto Crimes Division had been investigating “a spike in the theft of older-model Honda, Nissan, and Toyota sedans, which were subsequently being sold for scrap metal at local Bronx scrap yards,” Detective Joseph Wedge stated in the indictment. Police traced the cars to New England Used Auto Parts Inc., which had logged each purchase. New England’s records showed that the seller was Reynaldo Nazario. His signature was on every MV-35. (According to documents on file with the New York State Department of State, Alfredo Monegro is the scrap yard’s chief executive officer. The Voice was unable to locate Monegro for comment.)
His lawyer argued that Reynaldo couldn’t have signed the forms because he cannot read and only writes in big, capital letters. But video surveillance had captured every transaction.
Raskin notes that New York law does not require New England Used Auto Parts to contact the police if theft is suspected, and that the MV-35 “specifically releases them (and any scrap yard) from liability.”
Says Ranone, the former NYPD auto crimes lieutenant: “As long as you have the proper paperwork, there’s nothing you can really do.”
Reynaldo pleaded guilty to 26 counts of grand larceny. The judge sentenced him to three and a half to seven years in prison. He’s serving his time at the Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg, near the Canadian border, a six-hour drive from the Bronx.
His reputation preceded him. “Yo, I never seen anybody do it like Gone in 60 Seconds,” he says one fellow inmate told him.
His sixth time on the inside hasn’t been much easier than the first. He asked his sister to send him coffee and got mad when she didn’t send any. He asked Sylvia to write him letters and got mad when she didn’t write any. Nobody could spare any money to put in his account. Nobody could spare any money to accept his collect calls. Sylvia moved into a shelter. The world went on without him.
A few months into his sentence, someone read Reynaldo a news story about a 48-year-old man named Filpo Malave, who pleaded guilty to stealing 25 cars in a spree that began in December 2012.
Malave sold the cars to New England Used Auto Parts. In a news story published before Malave’s sentencing, New England’s yard manager, Julio Baez, told DNAinfo.com that because the paperwork was in order, the company was unaware it had purchased stolen merchandise. “You never know until the police come,” Baez said. “That’s the only way.”
Julio Baez declined to comment for this story.