LAWRENCE, Mass. -- A new squad of police officers is trying to rid this old mill town of a serious problem -- cars are disappearing like crazy.
Last year, nearly one of every nine vehicles in Lawrence was reported stolen -- 12 times the national average. It appears to give Lawrence, population 60,000, the ignominious distinction of being America's car-theft capital.
The problem is so severe that the auto insurance industry, not city government, is paying for the police department's new Auto Theft Task Force. It is believed to be the only privately financed municipal law enforcement unit in the country.
Many of the thefts are the work of young gangs whose members are so brazen they have been known to steal a car, pull up alongside a police cruiser, make an obscene gesture and race off.
Other thefts are deliberately arranged by car owners, who either can't keep up with loan payments or want to unload a lemon. Such insurance fraud is so pervasive that Lawrence police say the first suspect in a reported car theft is the person filling out the report.
Still other thefts are of the more usual variety -- for car parts. Lawrence is littered with dozens of licensed and unlicensed auto body businesses, some of them illegal "chop shops."
"If I had a dollar for every auto body shop in Lawrence, I'd be living the high life in Florida," Lawrence Police Sgt. Calvin Deyermond said.
Sergeant Deyermond heads the police squad that investigates car thefts. Begun in March, the unit is funded by a $480,000 grant from the state's car insurance industry.
The insurance industry decided it had to do something because Lawrence was accounting for $35 million in annual claims, including $2 million for stolen cars.
"The reason that we did it was that theft and bodily injury claims were so far beyond the bounds of reasonableness that we felt that an aggressive, pro-active involvement on our part was appropriate," said Daniel Johnston, president of the Auto Insurers Bureau of Massachusetts.
The new squad, consisting of Sergeant Deyermond, three detectives and a fingerprint specialist, faces quite a challenge. For many Lawrence youths, stealing cars is a sport.
"Sometimes they'll get into competitions with one another to find out who can steal the most cars," Sergeant Deyermond said last week at the squad's hectic offices at a housing project.
He estimated that 80 percent of Lawrence's car thefts were committed by youths younger than 17. Some are so young that when they steal cars, they need a partner -- so one can turn the steering wheel while the other works the pedals.
Detective Jose Linares recalled an incident earlier this year in which "an officer saw a car with no driver, or so he thought. He went after it. One driver was 9, the other 11."
Sergeant Deyermond attributes the car-thefts phenomenon among young people to poverty, truancy and boredom.
"We've got an extremely high number of dropouts," he said.
Many join gangs. "We have, just off the top of my head, seven or eight gangs whose sole business of being is stealing cars," Sergeant Deyermond said.
Professional operations also thrive. Stolen cars from Lawrence have ended up as far away as Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
Lawrence residents also have been known to arrange to have their unwanted cars "stolen," and dumped into the Merrimack bTC River, which transects the city. So many cars are dumped there that they sometimes pile up above the surface, police say.
Sergeant Deyermond recalled a case last month in which a local woman had hired two youths to steal her car. "She said she didn't like it anymore. She was tired of it."
After just three months on the job, Lawrence's auto theft squad already is reporting success -- officials say thefts in the city are down 34 percent this year.
But it doesn't appear that Lawrence's many car thieves are making career changes. Car thefts are suddenly soaring at three of the city's neighboring communities -- North Andover, Andover and Methuen.