Blazing autos 

A new task force has been formed to help Detroit fire officials deal with an epidemic of automobile arsons that continues to plague the city.

"Auto fires are out of control," says Detroit Arson Fire Chief Jon Bozich about the more than 5,200 automobile fires that occur in the city every year. "That’s an average of 100 auto fires every week, and 90 percent are usually arson."

To address the problem, the fire department has formed the Detroit Arson Task Force on Auto Fires. The aim of the task force, says Bozich, is to deter those who deliberately have their cars stolen and burned to obtain insurance money.

"Usually it’s suburbanites who have run their leased car odometers past the allowed mileage," explains Bozich, a 33-year Fire Department veteran. "In order not to pay the penalty, they pay for the car to be stolen."

"How it usually works," says Bozich, "is word of mouth through friends or family. The auto lessee mentions his/her dilemma about the odometer excess and a friend says, ‘I know someone.’ The contact is made and the auto lessee is given a script. Usually they leave their car in a designated place at a mall. While shopping the car disappears. They report it missing.

"The next thing you know, the car (if found at all) is burnt to a crisp. … The odometer is unreadable and the auto lessee gets the payoff from the insurance company."

The arsonists, who are paid a few hundred dollars to steal and burn the cars, take advantage of the city’s dark, abandoned streets to dissect the autos before torching them. The stripped parts are then sold to so-called "chop shops," which resell them.

"People make a living burning cars," says Bozich. "Very seldom is anybody ever caught."

The problem, explains Bozich, is that his division of 24 arson investigators is so overwhelmed with the number of suspicious building fires that auto fires are relegated to last place on the arson investigation list.

However, Bozich is confident that the new task force will help to cut the high auto arson numbers by putting pressure on the auto lessees. At the very least, even if they don’t identify the arsonists, they will likely lose the insurance payoff.

In addition, Bozich is hopeful that a pending auto arson bill in Lansing will be passed, increasing funds for auto arson investigations.

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