Some people trade in their cars every year. Weedy and his pals liked to trade them in every hour or so.
Take last July 2. Weedy, Shorty, Jamie, Reggie and Troy went out to celebrate Shorty's 16th birthday. Around 3 p.m., Jamie got a green 1988 Honda Accord on a street in West Baltimore; a little later, Shorty picked up a black 1988 Ford Probe at Mondawmin Mall. When the Honda ran out of gas, everybody piled into the Probe and rode out to Columbia Mall.
On the mall lot, they picked out a white 1991 Acura Legend. But while getting it started, they blew the fuse to the tape deck.
What's a birthday drive without music? They cruised around the mall until they spotted a nice 1989 Jeep Cherokee, a gold-on-black Limited Edition model. They took the Jeep and headed back to the city.
The evening ended about 8 p.m., when they picked up a silver 1991 Probe on the street near Morgan State University. But as they drove away, they realized they had been spotted. So they jumped from the new Probe, ran around the block to the Cherokee, and took that to a friend's house to finish the party.
Five guys; five cars; five hours. A typical run for Baltimore's teen-age car thieves, according to both the teen-agers and the police who struggle to keep up with them.
"I was going out to steal cars every day, every other day," says Weedy, a tall, handsome 18-year-old whose career claim of 500 cars stolen is described by police as extremely modest. "Sometimes we'd be three or four carloads, and the majority would come back with their own car."
If the police adage is right, that auto theft is the kindergarten of crime, then Maryland has a bumper crop rising to the upper grades.
Vehicle theft has more than doubled statewide in the last decade, reaching more than 35,000 last year -- one every 15 minutes. While professional "chop shops" that break cars up and sell them for parts account for some thefts, young thieves looking for temporary wheels account for the overwhelming majority in Maryland and especially in Baltimore. More than 70 percent of cars stolen in Maryland last year were recovered, most within hours or a few days; in Baltimore the recovery rate is nearly 90 percent.
Using a screwdriver or the slightly more sophisticated devices called a "slim jim" or "mystery tool," an experienced thief can get inside most locked cars in a few seconds. With a $7 body shop tool called a dent puller, it requires less than a minute to yank out the ignition. A quick twist of the screwdriver will unlock the steering wheel and automatic transmission and start the car.
With a little hands-on instruction, these skills can be acquired at an early age. The peak ages for auto-theft arrest in the state are 15 and 16. Ten children aged 9 and under were caught stealing cars last year; police occasionally catch a thief sitting on telephone books to see over the dashboard.
"In my neighborhood, just about everyone's doing it," said a veteran 19-year-old car thief from Highlandtown who prefers to be identified by his graffiti tag, Vesal. ("Only a few people will know that's me," he said. "And they're all in jail." Vesal himself is doing a year on work-release.)
"There are generations of car thieves," Vesal said. "A brother would do it, pass it to his little brother. He'd teach a friend, and the friend would teach his little brother."
"I knew a good 50 people who stole cars, probably more," said Weedy, who also declined to be identified by his full name. He used to live in the Walbrook neighborhood of West Baltimore; currently he wears an extra-large navy jumpsuit labeled "Baltimore County Detention Center."
"Some people might not believe it but stealing cars is like a drug," Weedy said. "Once you get started, it's hard to stop."
In Weedy's case, police confirm the diagnosis.
"Weedy got the reputation for being the No. 1 car thief in the Northwest District," said Sgt. Everett Fullwood of the Baltimore police auto theft unit. "He'd ride up to Walbrook High School to pick up his girl friend and I'd go looking for him with a description of the car he'd stolen. But I wouldn't find him, because meanwhile he would have stolen another car."
"A status symbol"
Weedy is black; Vesal is white. They are from different neighborhoods, but the stories they tell are almost identical. Both are 10th-grade dropouts and walking data-bases of a specialized kind of information: how to pop the wing window of a four-door Toyota so that it doesn't shatter; how to get around the alarm on an Acura; how to smash the steering column on a General Motors car to get at the wheel lock.
Perhaps the hardest question for them to answer is why.
Sometimes, it's true, for money. Weedy says he would sell a radio or a pair of tires from a stolen car if someone asked for them, although he never made it a habit. Some teen-agers will "sell" a stolen car for $20 or $50 to a friend, or to a burglar or drug dealer who wants a car that won't be traced to him.