The FBI ranks metro Atlanta as No. 4 in the nation of auto thefts, but a Channel 2 Action News investigation found many thieves are easily repeating the crimes after their arrests.
Channel 2’s Erin Coleman looked into some of the most notorious car thieves and how they’re costing taxpayers. Some of them have been arrested nearly 20 times over the span of 20 years, all for car thefts.
Every day in metro Atlanta, there are unsuspecting car owners who find themselves the victim of car theft and everyone pays for it with higher insurance premiums.
If someone really wants to steal your car, "They're going to get it," said David Renaud, a lead investigator based in Atlanta with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
According to his records, some of the worst offenders have been caught over and over again, but get little prison time.
"Since I've been in the business, that just seems to be the nature of the beast," said Renaud.
Robert Mahone, 57, has been arrested 46 times in metro Atlanta, 18 of which were for auto theft. Shawn Gaither, 47, has been arrested 34 times, 15 times for auto theft. Cedric Phelps, 32, recently was arrested in a sting operation, which left him with 37 auto theft-related charges.
"(That) doesn't surprise me at all. For some people, this is their business. This is their job," said DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James.
He added, "You rarely every catch somebody stealing a car," making it a harder case to prove after the fact. The maximum sentence for auto theft is 10 years. Channel 2 searched hundreds of pages of documents and found that in many cases, thieves actually serve is far less than that.
"A lot of time people may get a 10-year sentence, like car thieving or stealing and they may only do three to four. That's not up to us. It's not up to a judge. That's going to be an issue for the parole board," said James.
But the parole board told Coleman many times it is up to a judge. In Phelps’ case, he was sentenced to 20 years, only to serve three. By law, he is eligible for parole after one year.
"We have our hands tied, because thieves understand the system the same way we understand the system," said James.
"Some of the perps that we deal with, we have unfortunately locked them up again and again, but that's our job," said DeKalb County Police Officer R.J. Jackson.
Jackson is on the front lines of chasing down these thieves. He said he’s seen thieves use tow trucks to haul off vehicles or use fake stickers and plates to make stolen cars look legitimate. The cars end up in the hands of criminals to commit other crimes, at chop shops and other places.
"A lot of these cars have been known to come down to these ports in Georgia," Jackson said.
One such location is the Port of Savannah, where stolen cars are smuggled overseas in shipping containers. Channel 2 Action News visited the Port of Savannah and found a stolen Lexus and stolen Range Rover. Authorities said the Lexus was headed to West Africa, and the Range Rover to Eastern Europe.
An official from the Port of Savannah said that they have seen as many as five vehicles in one container. Once a stolen car leaves port, there is virtually no chance of getting it back.
Renaud told Coleman this high-level, high-end car theft appears to be on the rise in the metro-Atlanta area.
The 1994 Honda Accord has been the area’s most stolen car for several years.