His gut told him there was something amiss. Nothing unusual that he could put his finger on, just something ‘off’ about the apparently routine traffic stop.
Instinct proved correct – and the feeling was more accurate than even Tustin Police Officer Joseph Cossack could have predicted.
It all began when Cossack stopped two suspects in a reportedly stolen Chevrolet Impala in November, a seemingly routine event on an everyday shift.
But the stop turned into one of the most unusual efforts in the field training officer’s 10-year career. Not only were the suspects driving a stolen car, but they were transporting contraband that might connect them to many other vehicle thefts – 78 of them, to be exact.
“We had a report of a stolen vehicle seen in the Old Town Tustin area,” recalls Cossack. “I ran it on my computer, confirmed that it was stolen, and then, following procedure, I let the department know and other officers came to assist.”
“It’s standard practice when you stop a stolen vehicle to let the owner know,” he explains. “Typically, that happens after the suspects are in custody.”
In this instance, the stolen vehicle’s owner lived very close to the location of the suspects’ arrest, which occurred near El Camino Real and Main Street, so the car’s owner was on the scene in moments.
“While looking through the car with the owner,” Cossack remembers, “there were all kinds of things inside that didn’t belong to the victim.”
Stashed in the trunk amid possibly stolen packages, mail, and other property strewn throughout the Impala was a large satchel.
“As soon as I opened the sack, I spotted what looked like hundreds of car keys,” Cossack said. “It was scary that someone would have this many keys at their disposal. Later we discovered that some of the keys were from cars stolen in other (areas).”
Cossack already was familiar with one of the two suspects, having arrested him in another reported stolen vehicle about two weeks previously.
While the size and scope of the apparent auto theft ring is extraordinary, Cossack observes, perhaps the most important outcome of the arrests is the message it sends to potential thieves: The Tustin Police Department is serious about stamping out auto theft.
“Tustin has the reputation of being proactive,” says Cossack. “One of the suspects even said then that it felt like every time he entered the city, officers spotted and stopped him.”
“It’s a really great message to send to criminals,” he adds, “for them to think we’re everywhere and that we will find them.”
The 78 keys recovered that day include fobs with batteries that had stopped working as well as many other kinds of keys.
“Who knows what they were saving them for?” he asked, adding that keys can be used as a ploy to make car ownership appear legitimate so that thieves can unload merchandise.
Auto thefts are becoming more common throughout Orange County, he says, urging owners to park in safe, well-lighted areas within one’s sight or hearing, report unusual occurrences, and consider tracking devices, cameras, and alarms to keep the car safe.
Because the investigation is continuing, Cossack can’t comment in detail about the arrests or the incident. Suffice to say, he notes, “I’m going to remember this one for a long time.”