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Coast-to-coast car thief traveled 22 states

Old Cars Weekly archive – March 13, 2008 issue


Story by John Gunnell

Auto theft is certainly nothing new. In March 1940 alone, 1,330 motor vehicles were stolen in California. Both individual thieves and auto-theft rings were in existence back then, but dedicated law-enforcement professionals, like Capt. Earl W. Personius, worked hard to thwart their schemes.

8003-3 Coast to Coast CHP Capt

Personius belonged to the California Highway Patrol’s Bureau of Auto Thefts. Part of his job involved researching the CHP files and telling the public about some of the more celebrated cases. Personius believed that passing these stories on to motorists would make them more security conscious.

“Lock your car when you leave it standing and be sure that all the windows are closed when you lock the doors,” the Captain warned. “If every motorist would clip out these two sentences and paste them on his windshield where he couldn’t help but see them, as he left his car, until following their advice became second nature, fewer cars would be stolen by thieves who make it a practice to travel all over the country stealing, driving and selling automobiles.”

According to Personius, in street parlance, thieves found it a “cinch to spot cars either with the keys left in the ignition lock or the windows open, so that the wires could be shorted to get the car rolling.”

One car thief who came to the attention of the CHP was a crook who used the alias “John Henry Shelby.” At 5:45 p.m. on April 11, 1940, “Mr. Shelby” was stopped and captured near the state capital by Officer Harry A. Starr of the Patrol’s Sacramento squad. The car thief was driving a 1940 Dodge, with California tags, that had been reported stolen in Missouri. Though the car had been swiped weeks earlier, it made the California police wires at 3 p.m. that day.

After intensive questioning, Shelby admitted to the cops that he had swiped at least 200 cars at locations from one coast to the other. He started in the car-theft racket when he visited a Los Angeles dealer to take a test drive and never came back.

8003-3 Coast to Coast 40 Dodge

The coast-to-coast car thief was caught driving a ’40 Dodge, like this one seen at the Masterpiece event in Milwaukee in 2007.

Shelby next went to another used car lot and, while distracting the owner with conversation, stole a pad of Automobile Purchase Contracts. He cut out parts of a legal registration he had for an older car and pasted them over the registration for the stolen car, in order to make a false sales contract.

Shelby drove the car across the country before smacking it into a fire hydrant in Erie, Pa. The police there seized the car and arrested Shelby, but he eventually fled the jail and hitchhiked to Youngstown, Ohio, where he swiped a 1939 Dodge. He took this car to New York City, then drove it to St. Louis, Mo., where he swapped it for the stolen ’40 Dodge in which he was caught.

St. Louis police caught him, but let him walk away on a ruse. He had asked if he could go outside to get a magazine that he was reading, but he then kept going. That evening, he drove the Dodge past a swank motel and saw a new Willys sitting there with California license plates. He promptly transferred those tags to the Dodge and then kept going.

From St. Louis, the thief went to Stockton, Calif., and then to Reno, Nev. He even picked up a Nevada driver’s license in the Silver State, using the name “Jones.” It was while he was traveling back to Stockton that Officer Starr pulled the Dodge over and wound up throwing the thief in the clink. During his interrogation, Shelby informed the authorities that he had driven the stolen car through 22 different states!

Shelby was locked up in the county jail in Stockton before being turned over to the FBI. Ultimately, he was prosecuted under the Dryer Act, which covered the interstate theft of automobiles.

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