Detective Jeff Smith shook his head and muttered as he shuffled through a two-week-old file that was already a couple of inches thick.
"I've never seen anything like this before, no sir," said Smith, a 15-year veteran of the Durham Sheriff's Office.
"How did he even find the time?" wondered a detective sitting next to him.
The deputies were trying to make sense of a wild carjacking scheme with a list of details that resonated like a Christmas song: 12 cars, 11 days, seven victims, three wreckers, two scrapyards and a thief who barely touched a key.
The case began June 6 at noon, when Miguel Avila called the sheriff's office with a complaint. A tow truck had arrived at Avila's Durham home, and the driver was attempting to load his 1975 Ford F-100 from his driveway onto the rig.
Patrol sergeant C.W. Clark was dispatched to Avila's house on Holder Road, where he questioned the driver, David Dixon, who worked for S&S Towing. Dixon said he'd received a call earlier that day from a man claiming to be the F-100's owner and received instructions to tow it to LKQ scrapyard on South Miami Boulevard. The caller, who didn't give his name, offered to meet Dixon at LKQ and pay him $50.
This wasn't the first time the man had called him. During the first week of June, Dixon said, he had ordered "around seven" tow jobs for cars he purportedly owned, requesting that they be hauled to either LKQ or Always Buying Scrap on Kate Street.
That very morning, in fact, Dixon had picked up a 1998 Ford Expedition, also from Holder Road. The night before, he'd towed a 2006 Toyota Camry, but the scrapyard wouldn't accept it, so Dixon returned it to where he had picked it up.
Dixon had always obliged the man's requests. But after LKQ turned down the Camry, he was suspicious enough to jot down the license plate of the man's burgundy Toyota Corolla.
A burgundy Toyota Corolla? That was odd, said Avila, joining the conversation that was taking place in his driveway. Earlier that day, a man driving a burgundy car had knocked on his door and asked if the F-100 was for sale.
Dixon promised not to accept any more of the man's towing requests. He also passed along the Corolla's license plate information to Sgt. Clark. It traced back to John McEachin, a 53-year-old Durham man.
That afternoon at LKQ, Clark spotted the 1998 Expedition that had been towed earlier in the day. The tag number led to an East Durham woman who'd left it in her yard to attend a relative's graduation. When Clark called her to say it had been stolen, she said that a man driving a burgundy Corolla had knocked on her door in the morning, inquiring whether the Expedition was for sale.
An LKQ employee produced a record showing that its seller was listed as 23-year-old Terryon McEachin.
Scrapyard owners are legally required to collect ownership documentation, such as a title or registration card, from a car seller. But a little-known state statute waives that rule for any car more than 10 years old. This explains why LKQ bought the 1998 Expedition but declined the 2006 Camry, Detective Smith realized as he peered over Sgt. Clark's report at the sheriff's office. Perhaps the car thief was aware of the law but miscalculated the year of the Camry, Smith thought to himself.
On June 8, a Saturday, a report came in that a 1993 Ford Explorer had been towed from an East Durham carport by a blue-and-white tow truck. A neighbor said a man driving a burgundy sedan had been spotted walking around the house, claiming that his family had recently bought the property.
Reliable Towing uses blue-and-white wreckers. An employee later told law enforcement that Reliable had indeed towed the Explorer that day, hauling it to Always Buying Scrap. The man who ordered the tow hadn't given his name.
On June 9, another report came in. A collector of old cars discovered five Mercedes-Benzes missing. Ten days prior, he had reported that his 1987 Nissan King Cab had vanished.
The following day, Detective Smith read the weekend reports and noted that all of the vehicles were older models, which confirmed his earlier suspicions. Dixon, the S&S Towing driver, acknowledged towing four of the Mercedes-Benzes on two separate days earlier in the month. Dixon also mentioned towing a 1987 Honda Civic that Smith wasn't aware of.
When Smith called area scrapyards, he learned that the King Cab, the Civic and two of the Mercedes-Benzes had been crushed. The other three Benzes had been stripped of various parts. The Explorer was missing its hubcaps, and the driver's side window had been smashed with a hammer by the seller, who failed to provide the keys. Each car had been purchased by the scrapyards for a price between $250 and $500.
Investigators visited the home of John McEachin, the owner of the burgundy Corolla. He said he'd kicked his son Terryon out of the house and wasn't sure where he was living.
Back on June 7, the day after Avila's F-100 was nearly towed from his driveway, a man had walked into a Fayetteville Street convenience store, leaving the motor of his Chevrolet Impala running with his two children inside. Someone stole the Impala from the store, then abandoned it. The kids were found unharmed a short time later on East Pettigrew Street.
On June 14, the suspect, Terryon McEachin, turned himself in to Durham police. He was well-known to Durham law enforcement for larceny-related crimes dating to 2006. He'd already been wanted for identity theft, fraud, larceny and breaking and entering. He's now being held in Durham County Jail on a $245,000 bond and is awaiting trial for a slew of additional charges, including two counts of kidnapping and eight counts of larceny of a motor vehicle.
McEachin's Facebook page indicates he graduated in 2008 from Durham's Hillside High School and in 2012 from Charlotte's Johnson C. Smith University, where he studied political science and criminology. Based on his investigation, Smith believes he'd been employed by a Durham landscaping company but was fired in April for stealing and pawning equipment.
An interview appointment fell through after McEachin failed to update his visitors list at the jail.
His towing scheme worked so well because the law allowed it to, said Smith. In addition to the state statute that lets scrapyards accept older cars without paperwork, tow truck operators aren't permitted to access vehicular information from the State Bureau of Investigation.
"There needs to be some checks and balances for ownership documentation," Smith said. Regarding McEachin, he added: "He did his research and worked out his story well. There's no telling how many he actually got."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Grand theft tow 'n' scrap."
Correction: An editing error in the chart indicates that the 2006 green Toyota Camry is still missing; it was returned to its owner's property.