When Arlington Heights police took a report of stolen tires at a local car dealership last fall, they had no idea it would lead to a massive illegal business with stolen property from the region -- but that's exactly what investigators uncovered last week.
So far, two Chicago men have been charged with theft after police recovered more than $300,000 in stolen tires and rims. Police, who found 1,100 tires and 200 rims in the backyard of a Chicago home, are saying those arrests are just the first in a large, ongoing investigation that they believe will lead to more people being charged.
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Police said they believe the two men were stealing spare tires off vehicles at car dealerships throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin for at least a year, removing the rims and reselling the parts to flea markets and to other customers.
The investigation started when Arlington Heights Nissan, a Bob Rohrman-owned dealership located at 1100 W. Dundee Road, reported the theft of about 60 tires between Oct. 29 and Nov. 5.
Arlington Heights police then installed a GPS tracking device in a spare tire on a vehicle at the dealership to try to track where it would go if stolen. That tire was stolen on Thursday and led police to a Chicago address on the 5200 block of Winchester Avenue, said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Katherine Levine.
When police showed up at the Chicago home, they could see tires stacked all around the yard, realized the scale of the operation and obtained a search warrant, said Arlington Heights Cmdr. Mike Hernandez.
"This is not something we expected to run into. We thought someone was taking tires for their own personal use so we certainly didn't expect them to have more than 1,000 tires," Hernandez said. "The scope of this is just huge."
Police arrested Terry Haygood as he was dropping tires off with Abel Villarreal-Alvarez, who admitted to officers he knew the tires were stolen, Levine said. Haygood added that he had been "doing it for a long time," authorities said.
Haygood, 39, of the 500 block of East 71st Street, is charged with burglary and possession of burglary tools. Villarreal-Garcia, 40, of the 2400 block of West 45th Street, is charged with theft. Haygood's bail is $150,000 and Villarreal-Garcia's is $50,000. The defendants next appear in court on Feb. 21.
But the investigation is far from over, Hernandez said.
Police are now cataloging the tires, which had to be transported from the city to a special location in Arlington Heights because the volume was too large for the police evidence room. Once the tires and rims are organized, other police departments and auto dealerships will be invited to view the items to see if they can identify stolen property.
Most of the tires were taken off SUVs, trucks and minivans -- vehicles where the spare tire is stored underneath the vehicle. Police said thieves would steal the tires from display cars after the dealerships were closed. Although more than 1,000 tires were recovered, Hernandez said there's no way of knowing how many tires had already been sold.
"Obviously with this amount of tires, it's not just these two people doing this," Hernandez said, adding the department is working with other law enforcement agencies, including Chicago police and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, to find them.
Hernandez also said this is the largest property recovery in the history of the Arlington Heights Police Department's history.
"It's been a daunting task recovering that amount of product and relocating it," he said.