On the outskirts of a parking lot at the Vintage Faire shopping center in Modesto, three men are stripping the parts from a late model Honda Accord. Using only hand tools, they remove the hood in under a minute.
Within eight minutes the trio strips the car of seats, doors, paneling and other key parts.
Standing beside the skeletal frame of the Honda, the three receive a round of applause from nearly two-dozen on lookers.
It's all part of a demonstration put on by an insurance company to show how quickly a "chop shop" can take a car apart. The three men stripping the car aren't thieves, they're mechanics.
One of them is John Frey, who says the key to quickly dismantling the vehicle was a coordinated effort.
"The thieves are the same. They go in with a team and they know what they want to do. Each one has a certain thing that need to get and that's what they go for."
There's a sense of disbelief among many in the crowd watching an entire car being taken apart in a matter of minutes. Central Valley resident Gina Pochini vows she'll be more careful about keeping her car secure after seeing the demonstration.
"I thought it was just fabulous. It's nice for the public to be able to see and understand that car thieves can take your car apart in seven minutes, and get lots of valuable parts off it."
In the world of auto theft, the sum of a vehicle's parts is worth more than the car itself. Intact, the Honda is worth around eight thousand dollars. The parts could sell for twice that amount on a thriving black market. The hood alone is worth about 200-dollars.
Lieutenant Gregory Peck of the California Highway Patrol says the quest for illegal drugs is often a catalyst for those who steal cars for parts.
"There's a lot drugs, methamphetamine here. And a lot of this auto theft and other property crimes are driven by methamphetamine."
The promise of a big payoff is pushing auto-theft to record highs in the region. According to figures from the National Crime Insurance Bureau, in 2003, Modesto was tops in the U-S with over 13-hundred thefts, for every 100-thousand vehicles. No other city was even close. However, Stockton, Sacramento and Fresno were also in the top ten nationally.
"California in general is a good place for auto thieves because there are so many vehicles on the road. They're in nice shape."
Frank Scafidi is with the National Insurance Crime Bureau. He says the entire state is attractive to thieves for a number of reasons, including location.
"There's all kinds of ways to get cars out of the area. There are a lot of vehicles that get exported either through the ports or across the border with Mexico."
Hondas and Toyotas are favorites of thieves. Because they're popular cars among the driving public, their parts bring in more money on the black market. But no make or model is immune, and in the end, California drivers get hit in the wallet. Rich Halberg is a spokesman for All State Insurance, which sponsored the car stripping demonstration.
"Auto theft actually contributes to what you, you as a consumer pay in terms of your auto premium, two hundred to four hundred dollars, every year."
Authorities stress that common sense practiced by drivers can help deter auto theft. They say it often comes down to simple things, like making sure to lock your car, never leaving the keys inside, and being careful about where you park your vehicle overnight.
(Photo courtesy: National Insurance Crime Bureau)