Pricey option offers priceless protection
By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
Richard Morrison, a Dimmitt Cadillac salesman, pulled up to the dealership's gas pump and climbed out. He left the keys in the ignition.
He was 20 feet from the $32,000 Catera when a man jumped in the car and drove off. An eye in the sky tracked the thief's every turn from the Clearwater dealership until Tampa police closed in 24 miles away.
The same Batmobile-like technology recently helped police find a St. Petersburg man wanted in a carjacking. It also helped locate a disgruntled former employee accused of kidnapping Eddie Gomez, a Brandon automobile executive.
Each vehicle was equipped with OnStar, a global positioning system tracked by a satellite in space.
"It's a great tool," said Dan Aggers, an auto theft detective for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "But the problem you have is, it only appears in the higher dollar cars."
As OnStar subscribers (now more than 2-million drivers) continue to grow, so do requests to OnStar to find stolen cars. Nationwide and in Canada, OnStar tracks about 400 stolen vehicles a month. And that's not even why it was invented.
The major drawback, law enforcement officers say, is the red tape they must work through to prove they're working a criminal case and not prying into someone's personal affairs.
"They go right away into this confidentiality thing where the owner of the car is the one that they have to release information to, and time is of the essence in a lot of cases," said Russell Suess, a Fort Lauderdale police detective who is also president of the Florida Auto Theft Intelligence Unit.
OnStar says it tries to balance public safety and privacy but does not provide proprietary data.
"You can't call up and say, "Is my husband down at Billy Bob's having a beer?"' said Ray Emery, OnStar sales manager for the southeast region, which includes Dew Cadillac in St. Petersburg.
OnStar is one of several systems used by police and sold by auto dealers that offer emergency services and track vehicles. Some, like LoJack, are specifically designed to help police track stolen cars and use different technology than OnStar.
Part computer, part telephone, OnStar is a wireless device first manufactured by General Motors in 1996. It does more than pinpoint location; it can unlock car doors when you're locked out and flash the headlights or honk the horn if you forget where you parked.
Three tiny buttons on a car's dashboard or rearview mirror are all that give it away.
Touch one button and chat with a 24-hour operator, who introduces himself by name and speaks to you through the radio speakers. The operator can tell you exactly where you are, give you directions and even make a restaurant reservation.
"Dial," says Emery, the OnStar salesman, as he drives his OnStar-equipped Cadillac during a recent service tour.
"Number please," a recorded voice replies.
Emery, 49, rattles off a telephone number.
"Dialing," the voice confirms.
More and more, police are turning to the service to help find stolen cars.
Two months ago, a gunman approached a man in the parking lot of a golf shop in Hillsborough County at 5:56 p.m. He demanded the keys to Jim Ackerman's 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe, then drove away.
Ackerman called OnStar, which started tracking the truck within four minutes of the carjacking.
OnStar alerted St. Petersburg police at 6:07 p.m., when the Chevrolet Tahoe approached Gandy Boulevard and Fourth Street N.
The carjacker had no idea OnStar was following him for 25 miles -- from the golf shop in Hillsborough County to a busy street in St. Petersburg, where St. Petersburg officers tried to stop him in traffic at 22nd Avenue N and Fourth Street.
The carjacker, 18-year-old Reggie Johnson, sped away. With St. Petersburg officers chasing him, he narrowly missed a house and crashed into a tree along 22nd Avenue N at 100 mph. He was killed when the truck exploded.
"They were able to give us a running account of where the vehicle was," said St. Petersburg Police officer Mike Jockers. "Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson decided he didn't want to get stopped."
OnStar also helped police apprehend Jimm Underwood, 35, a Pinellas Park man accused of kidnapping Ferman Chevrolet executive Eddie Gomez from his garage in Hillsborough County.
Hillsborough sheriff's deputies tracked Gomez's Acura to the parking lot of the Pinellas Park Library in Pinellas County.
Underwood had planned to kill Gomez and then kill himself. Neither the sheriff's office nor Gomez would discuss the incident.
"I would love to tell you, but I can't talk about it yet," said Gomez, 50.
Some law enforcement officers say OnStar worries too much about liability, which slows down police investigations.
Suess, the Fort Lauderdale detective, said he tried to get OnStar to help him in two cases, but the assistance came too late.
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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