A chop shop is busted by Albuquerque Police Department auto theft detectives in a lot near the airport on Wednesday. (Courtesy of APD)
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The Albuquerque Police Department has busted up an alleged chop shop found near the airport and arrested the man police say was running it – marking the first time its detectives have charged someone under a new state law.
A bill signed into law in March makes operating a chop shop a third-degree felony.
“The chop shop bill is something that law enforcement had brought to the Legislature several years ago,” state Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, said during a news conference at APD headquarters Thursday. “It’s exciting that after a number of years, we were able to pass the chop shop (legislation) in a bipartisan manner as part of the comprehensive crime package.”
Police Chief Harold Medina said a search of the property discovered three engines from stolen vehicles and 12 stolen vehicles. Of those, seven had been stolen in the past six weeks.
Lebardo Rascon-Olivas, 48, is charged with seven counts of receiving or transferring stolen motor vehicles, receiving or possessing stolen property, tampering with evidence and operating a chop shop. He was booked into the county jail. It’s unclear who his attorney will be and his family did not respond to requests for comment from the Journal.
“It’s kind of like drugs – somebody with individual amounts would be charged with possession (and) somebody with large amounts would be charged with distribution,” Medina said, explaining the new law. “This is kind of like the distribution version of stolen motor vehicles.”
Medina said between 10% and 15% of cars stolen in the city have not been recovered and police assume they have been disassembled and sold off in parts.
“A lot of figures will tell you that you’ll actually make more money from a car that’s been disassembled and sold in parts than trying to sell a stolen car as a whole,” Medina said. “It is a very lucrative profession.”
Last week, an undercover auto theft detective spotted a stolen truck and followed it for about three miles to a fenced-in lot on Williams SE, near University and Sunport.
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According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, the detective watched a woman walk through the lot wheeling a dolly carrying three catalytic converters that appeared to have been cut off from different vehicles.
The detectives conducted surveillance on the property for a couple of days before executing a search warrant Wednesday. That’s when they found more than 100 vehicles and engines, 15 of which had been reported stolen.
“We know at least 15 victims in the city of Albuquerque who lost their motor vehicle,” Medina said. “We sometimes don’t realize the impact that a lost vehicle has on a family who mainly has one means of transportation.”
Rascon-Olivas told detectives he was a mechanic working on the vehicles and someone else had brought a stolen truck to the lot and was cutting it apart.
However, the detectives wrote in the complaint that he had “reason to believe Lebardo knew or should have known that the numerous amount of parts, and vehicles located on his property were stolen.”
In response to questions about other suspects, Medina said the investigation is ongoing.
High rates of auto theft had been a black eye on the city for years, but they had started to decrease recently. However, auto theft rose in 2021 again.
Rep. Marian Matthews, who sponsored the bill along with Dixon, said the recent case has accomplished two important things.
“First of all, somebody’s going to be held accountable. The person who’s charged, assuming he’s found guilty, is going to be held accountable for having broken the law,” the Albuquerque Democrat said. “And the second thing is it sends a message that if you break this law, there are going to be consequences, you can be caught. Hopefully what it will do is deter crime and reduce the amount of auto theft that’s happening in our community.”