I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It is almost too fast to understand. I’m in the parking lot of a Target Store in San Jose, CA. It is 8 pm on a Thursday. We are at least a two-hour drive away from Oakley, CA with good traffic. “Never steal one within thirty miles of where you live. That’s the fucking golden rule,” a guy the gang calls Cooter says.
Truck Stop, another gang member with nothing more than a slightly modified screwdriver has hot-wired a purple ’66 VW Square Back and is pulling out of the parking lot.
“Let’s go!” Cooter yells as we hop back in his ’72 Beetle and follow, tailgate actually, Truck Stop out on to the main strip, through a four-way intersection, and onto the freeway heading north. Cooter follows close to hide the license plate on the ’66. We stay in the right lane at 55 mph the entire time.
I’ve known both of them for several years going back to our first year in high school. We had hung out on many occasions and stayed close enough that our mutual circle of friends remained roughly the same even a few years out of high school. I knew they had stolen car stereos and rims, shit like that in high school, but I had no idea how deep they had gone since high school ended.
Even as close as we were before I went on this “shopping spree” as they called it Cooter had got right up close in my face and said,
“You rat us out or fuck up and tell anyone, friend or no friend we will fucking end you. You get me?”
Cooter wasn’t a big guy and wasn’t all that physically intimidating, but I had seen him beat the shit out of a guy twice his size one time with a tire iron, so I knew he was capable of brutal bursts of violence if you pissed him off. I nodded dumbly and said, “Sure man, sure. You can trust me.”
If the cops roll us I’ll drop back and take the first exit. Truck will pull over for the cops, but bailout of the car before it stops and runs down the bank. Then we’ll have to pick him up.
They’ve been staking out the ’66 for over a week now. The owner is a kid that works at Target in the evening. They know his work schedule and they know he doesn’t know them. They use the ’72 Beetle because it looks stock, has faded paint, and doesn’t attract attention, But, it has a customized engine out of a Porsche, a custom suspension, and exhaust that makes it a fairly formidable getaway car.
“If the cops do jack us while we’re following Truck we can say we saw the ’66 and thought it was a friend’s car,” he says. “I’ve avoided getting popped twice that way,” he tells me proudly.
“What will you do with this one?” I ask nervously. As of now, I’m officially party to grand theft auto.
“We’ll take it to the barn, check out the parts then decide whether to paint it or part it out. Probably part it out. Finding clean numbers for Squarebacks is hard.”
Finding numbers means finding clean VIN numbers that match the year and make of the stolen car so they can legally register it and sell it. Or keep it. Truck Stop is currently driving around a custom ’67 Bug that is hotter than the mid-July California sun. But the numbers and paperwork tell a different story. He’s racked up two speeding tickets and a few parking tickets, but he didn’t end up in jail for any of them.
The barn is exactly what it sounds like, a red barn in the back of Cooter’s house. He lives with his grandmother. She has a beaten down old farm that has been steadily collapsing into disrepair and debt since Cooter’s grandfather died four years ago. Cooter rents out and lives in the barn. He converted the old hayloft into a drafty bedroom and the floor of the barn into a chop shop. His grandmother isn’t happy with the direction she feels Cooter’s life has taken, but he throws a few hundred dollars her way every week, so she mostly keeps quiet.
“I know he’s in some trouble, but he is also helping to keep this place afloat with the rent he pays, so I just pray for him and leave it at that.”
The barn has a lot of space for the parties Cooter and his gang like to throw on the weekends. They are officially part of the “Fear Us” Car Club, one of the many Nor. Cal VW car clubs in the area. The official rules of the club, printed on lime green paper and laminated for each member when they join, state that stealing cars, car parts, stereos, or anything else will not be tolerated and those breaking this rule will be kicked out of the club and reported to the police. The president of the club Brad, a tall long blond headed 19-year-old surfer types says this is because the club could potentially be implicated if members are caught stealing during any club functions. Brad’s father is an attorney and helped Brad draft the rules when the club was started two years ago.
The car thief ring, or gang as they like to be called, only has five members and Cooter, the leader, says that’s the way they want to keep it.
“We’re small, but we’re tight. We know what we are doing and none of us fuck up.”
Him and Truck Stop had been part of a bigger gang that stole car parts from all makes and models, but they got spooked when that one got busted and some of the key members went away for very long stretches.
“Old VW’s are easy and there’s a big market for parts. We can strip things down and move the parts in a few days, no hassle,” he tells me as we pull into the barn.
Truck Stop did five months in juvenile detention when he was only fifteen. Cooter has gotten a warning and juvenile probation, but hasn’t been to jail yet. Truck Stop did his time at a Youth Farm not far from where we are now.
“They had an auto shop class with all these old junkers you could tear apart to learn how to work on cars. There were a few old VW’s, so I learned how to rebuild them. Can do it with my eyes closed now.
The little town of Knightsen is part of a string of tiny towns that stretch north along the CA delta and San Joaquin River all the way up to Sacramento. Most of them are small farming towns with a few thousand resident’s maximum in most cases. There are about five of these little towns in a twenty-mile radius that make up the population of the local high school in Brentwood, the largest of the towns. So they have a lot of quiet open space out here away from the curious eyes of local law enforcement.
I’m impressed with the inside of the barn. A nice concrete slab has been poured dead center and a long string of shop lights hang down from the rafters lighting up the work area. A generator hums in the background. A makeshift plywood wall near the concrete slab holds all of the tools they need to ply their trade. Parked deeper in the barn in the darkness I count at least eight VW’s in various stages of repair or salvage. The smell of gasoline, diesel from the generator, and straw leftover from when this barn stored food for the farm animals all compete for my attention. Then Cooter lights up a joint and the pungent odor wins out over the others.
“Traded a sweet ’68 for half a key of bitching greenbud up in Humboldt a couple of weeks ago,” Cooter says proudly offering me the joint.
I take a weak hit and pass it quickly to Truck Stop. Crammed in next to the shop is what looks like an indoor skate park in progress, extremely unprofessional progress, I note. There is a rickety looking half pipe that is finished and a bunch of shallow swimming pool shaped holes dug in what is left of the barn floor that I assume they are planning on filling in with concrete. As I look at the skate park Cooter and Truck Stop-start walking around the car with tiny notepads and pens. I’m impressed with the detailed notes they are taking about the car before they begin stripping it down for parts. They won’t show me the notes when I ask, but Cooter says they are estimating the value of each part, jotting down potential customers, and deciding what to do with the stuff that’s left over.
“Pans are always a bitch,” Truck Stop tells me. “If we only strip off the parts then that shit has to go somewhere because it takes up too much space. They make nice bass habit in the delta though,” he says laughing.
I heard second hand from a common associate of mine and Cooter’s that him and Truck Stop make anywhere between $500–7000 per VW they steal. I haven’t seen any direct evidence of this other than the large wads of cash both of them carry around rolled up tightly in fist-sized rolls with rubber bands holding them in place. Cooter says the long term goal is to buy the property around the barn, about a half-acre out right from his grandmother so she can retire to a condo near Brentwood. Then they hope to convert the whole barn into a proper shop, skate park, and living quarters for their crew.
After Cooter and Truck Stop finish their lists the third member of their crew shows up, “Chaw”. I barely know Chaw. His nickname comes from the ever-present wad of brown chewing tobacco he crams in his upper lip, Skoal, I think it is. His arms are covered in tattoos, many of which if you look closely are white supremacist in origin.
He moved to Brentwood after we all finished high school and has been in and out of jail for various reasons including unpaid speeding tickets, driving without a license, failure to show in court, possession of stolen property, and failure to pay child support for his two kids, 7 months and 3 years. Everything about him is long and thin, long straight brown hair, long horse face, beak-like nose, and a nearly bulimic 6’2 frame. His role is somewhat unclear to me. He isn’t a mechanic, doesn’t go on the shopping sprees, and hates VW’s. He drives a primer black ’41 Ford pickup that has been completely rodded out.
The only clue as to why he is here is the little white baggy he produces from the pocket of his jean jacket. Each of them scoop a tiny pile of white powder out of the baggy and sniff it off the end of Chaw’s ignition key. They offer it to me, but I pass.
“Ready for a long night now,” Truck Stop howls as the crank hits.
The other role Chaw plays is middleman for the racist skinheads he has made connections with, in and out of jail who, like their skater and surfer counterparts, also like ’60s era customized VWs. His influence on Truck and Cooter is more apparent when I see the fresh tattoos of swastikas along Cooter’s knuckles after he takes his driving gloves off. Chaw only sticks around long enough to get them high before he leaves, but he says he will be back in a few hours with some girls that like to party. Cooter and Truck Stop see him off and then get down to business.
Again I’m impressed with their professionalism. As each part is removed it is marked with masking tape with the part number and approximate value written in back permanent ink just like you would see in any other junkyard or used parts store. Despite Truck Stop’s howl about a long night they are actually finished in just a little over two hours. Greasy, sweaty, and jittery from the speed they are now ready to party. Chaw shows back up with three bleach blond drunk and cranked up trailer park queens that I’m guessing will be the female side of the equation for the evening. One of them looks like she might be four months pregnant. Cooter offers to call up another chick for me, but I decline and leave them to their partying.
Eight months later Chaw’s mom, a semi-notorious biker meth cook in the area, looking at a very long prison sentence cuts a deal with the DEA ratting out Chaw, Cooter, and Truck Stop in exchange for a lighter sentence. I never heard exactly how many years each of them got, but I do know Truck Stop is still in prison seven years since the last time I saw him.