LOS ANGELES — Kris Shields, 46, tried to comprehend what he saw—and didn’t see—as he came out of a Chatsworth restaurant recently—an empty parking spot where he had left his 1965 Chevy El Camino.
"It was really a sick feeling when it happened," the Granada Hills resident told KNBC television. "I came out, and I didn’t think I drove it that night because you don’t imagine your car to be gone in your own neighborhood."
Shield’s case is one in a growing number of classic car thefts in and around Southern California. According to authorities, the cars are stolen to satisfy a growing overseas demand.
"There’s a big demand in Japan, New Zealand, Australia — put them in a container and nobody knows what’s in there," Nick Sfetku, president of the Road Kings car club told KNBC.
It is a problem that appears to be growing across Southern California.
The recent rash of thefts of classic cars have led police to create a network on the Web – at www.wsati.org – that posts fliers of stolen classic cars as part of the Western States Auto Theft Investigators.
According to local officials, classic vehicles are targeted because they are easy to sell overseas and are difficult to track – they lack the more sophisticated and expensive security systems in current automobiles.
While difficult to stop, police have had a limited amount of success in recent months.
Last week police arrested Jerry Thompson, who is charged with stealing a restored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, and at least six other classic autos in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica areas over the past several months.
The case involving Thompson began to develop March 12, when a victim reported his 1972 Chevrolet truck had been found in a garage behind a house in the 10600 block of Stanwin Avenue in Mission Hills, police said.
They said a friend of the victim made the discovery while at the house to trade a classic car chassis for the truck.
"He thought he was going to do a swap," LAPD Detective Ron Stilz told the local media. "Then he saw it and said, `Hey, I helped my buddy build this truck.’
Stilz contacted the TRAP team – made up of sheriff’s deputies, DMV officers and LAPD detectives specifically tasked with combating vehicle thefts across L.A. County.
Stilz, Mission Division officers and the team served a search warrant at the location March 13 and recovered the truck, which was valued at $25,000.
Police also found a stolen 1970 Chevy Chevelle worth $100,000, a door to a vehicle that had been stolen and a trailer that the suspect appeared to have used to tow stolen vehicles.
Later that day, police took Thompson into custody at the house, where they also recovered four other cars including a 1971 Chevy pickup truck worth $20,000 reported stolen from Van Nuys in January, a 1991 Honda Accord worth $3,000 reported stolen from the Foothill area in December, and a 1965 Buick Skylark stolen in Santa Monica.
They also discovered a 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible worth $150,000 that had been reported stolen from the Devonshire area of the Valley last month.
Thompson, whose listed occupation was handyman, is being held at the Los Angeles County Jail on a charge of grand theft auto.
The spate of classic car thefts have inspired many classic car owners to change attitudes about the way their classics are safeguarded, according to local media reports.
Many are no longer parking them in the street and owners are urging others to drive once around block before going home to make sure they aren’t being followed. When the cars are stored in the garage, they’re done so under lock, key and security alarm.
At least one car club has lately discussed purchasing LoJack or GPS car security alarms to help combat the growing problem.