NEW ORLEANS - It was a crime hidden in plain sight. In the middle of the day, in a residential neighborhood next to the Fair Grounds, a tow truck was busy hauling always people's cars.
New Orleans Police Detective Leonard Marlbrough said the heists were so brazen, nobody thought it looked suspicious. "It's pretty common occurrence here to have a tow truck towing cars off here. It wasn't until we started putting the pieces together that we could see what the common scheme was here," Marlbrough said. “"These cars were actually on people's private property. The tow truck would simply back into it, pick up the car and take it to the West Bank where the vehicles were being scrapped.”
Some of those clues that helped crack the case were assembled by Dawn Dedeaux, who on Nov. 18 stumbled across one of the suspects hooking up her van in front of her house on Gayoso Street.
"I asked what he was doing, and he said somebody authorized him to my van as scrap,” Dedeaux said. “I said, ‘That's my car and you're not taking it anywhere.’ ”
Dedeaux was savvy enough to play naïve, ask a bunch of questions, and gather critical information, including the operator’s name, driver’s license number and license plate. When the driver said he was working for another man, Dedeaux even got that man to call her and offer a bogus explanation. That led to the second suspect in the case.
"There were so many inconsistencies, I said, 'I have the opportunity right now to maybe get some evidence against these guys," Dedeaux said. “So I wrote everything down on a piece of paper to give to the police.”
Because Dedeaux was able to catch the alleged thieves in the act, she still has her van. But her neighbor next door, Gary Craddock, was not so lucky. Two of his cars – a Lexus and a Taurus – were stolen, sold for scrap and crushed.
"Somebody had got the nerve enough to just come in the yard and take them," Craddock said. "In the yard. Inside the yard across the property line."
With additional information from a Belle Chasse scrap yard where the cars were taken, Detective Marlbrough was able book two men, Keith Lanne, 45, and Ruel Smith, 32, both of Gretna, with multiple counts of theft and conspiracy. Lanne was the two truck operator; Smith was the person Dedeaux identified by convincing him to call her.
Dedeaux attributed to the arrests to lucky timing and greed on the part of the suspects.
"The audacity of coming to the same block and trying to take three cars in the middle of the day, it so greedy, they did themselves in," she said.
And police aren't done yet. Marlbrough was able to link Lanne and Smith to a fourth stolen car based on records from the scrap yard, Quick Recovery Auto Salvage in Belle Chasse.
"The investigation is ongoing,” Marlbrough said. “We're looking for a third person, and possibly a bigger story for us to delve into."
Lanne and Smith could not be reached for comment. Anyone with information about similar crimes can call Crimestoppers at 822-1111.