Minnesota anticipated current wave of auto thefts. Then lawmakers scrapped a tool to fight it.
Surveillance footage shows the last time anyone saw Vada Haxton’s car in one piece: her red Toyota Camry being carried by a tow truck into a Maple Grove scrap recycling facility in February.
Haxton later received a surprising letter from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety that her car had been scrapped just seven months after she reported it stolen.
By the time police responded, it was too late. Her car was gone.
“I was holding out hope because they said, like, what usually happens is the cars get recovered within a couple months,” Haxton said. “It just never really did.”
Haxton’s car was one of more than 3,800 vehicles reported stolen in Minneapolis last year alone — part of a crime wave that is challenging agencies across the state trying to crack down on everything from armed carjackings to national theft rings involving catalytic converters.
5 INVESTIGATES found lawmakers anticipated a surge in auto-related thefts nearly a decade ago when they passed a law that changed how scrap yards report purchases.
It included an electronic database requirement that could have helped police find Haxton’s car before it was destroyed.
But a review of legislative records shows those reforms, largely opposed by the scrap industry, were quietly peeled back despite widespread support from prosecutors and law enforcement.
“It was a positive step with a problem that we saw,” Anoka County Sheriff’s Commander Paul Lenzmeier said. “And we saw a solution, and it’s unfortunate that it’s not in place today.”
Scrap Industry Donations
In response to a massive auto-theft ring in St. Paul, the Legislature passed a law in 2013 that required scrap metal recyclers to include daily purchases in a database designed for the state’s pawn shops, now known as the automated pawn system (APS).
“We know that there’s a database that works with our pawn shops,” Lenzmeier said. “We know that it could work with scrap metal.”
Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul) wrote the law and said it would help address future crime waves involving stolen cars and catalytic converter thefts.
“This may not be a problem in your area today,” Mahoney said in 2013. “But it’s a problem coming to your area tomorrow or the next day or the next week.”
Despite that warning, Mahoney later supported repealing that key requirement for scrap yards in 2015 – a year before those businesses had to start entering their purchases into the APS database.
A 5 INVESTIGATES review of campaign finance reports shows Rep. Marion O’Neill (R-Maple Lake) led the repeal effort a year after she began receiving campaign donations from scrap recyclers and executives. To date, O’Neill has received $14,000 from scrap company owners, staff, and family members.
She is the only lawmaker who signed onto the bill and who reported direct contributions from the industry, according to available data from the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.
O’Neill declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, O’Neill said, “the scrap industry was about to be penalized for not putting their information into a state database that was never built.”
Legislative records show the state was still trying to build the system when the law was repealed.
O’Neill said the law still requires a photo ID for all transactions. She also pointed to an industry-built database that is “readily available to all law enforcement upon request.”
Police say that database is limited because it does not update fast enough to help investigators track down stolen parts or cars like Haxton’s.
Northern Metals paid $201.30 for Haxton’s 2005 Toyota. The company turned over its intake forms after the car was already destroyed.
A company spokesperson declined to comment.
In 2013, Northern Metals was one of the companies that pushed back against expanding the pawn system to include metal recycling, telling lawmakers it could cost recyclers up to $150,000 per year.
The nation’s largest scrap metal recycling trade association contends it is taking “positive” steps to work with law enforcement.
“Our members are all for stopping metal theft, so we’re always talking to law enforcement, to legislators trying to stop the theft and figure out the best ways to do that,” said Todd Foreman, Director of Law Enforcement Outreach for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).
In an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES, Foreman also pointed to the industry’s own database, which essentially works in reverse. It allows police to report stolen goods to scrap yards and has helped recover more than $3.3 million in property, according to ISRI.
In documents obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES, Maple Grove police said they didn’t have enough evidence to show anyone “knowingly possessed or transferred” Haxton’s stolen car.
Haxton said she had to ride the bus for nearly two weeks after her car was stolen. She used up nearly all her savings to buy another vehicle. Now, she’s taking her case to court, arguing her car was improperly scrapped.
“I don’t see how this could actually be a thing right now, considering I took the proper steps on how to report my vehicle stolen,” Haxton said.
*This story was updated to reflect that Rep. Mahoney also supported the repeal of the APS requirement.