The Easy Life of a Toronto Car Thief
In the dead of night, he breaks into your house and snatches your car keys. The next day, your SUV is in a shipping container on its way to the Middle East, and he’s $50,000 richer
This story was originally published in 2007.
In 2002, Maciej Niezurawski, one of the city’s most accomplished car thieves, lived in a Mississauga apartment with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He is over six feet tall, pushing 220 pounds, dresses casually—he’s a fan of the cotton track pant—and, at the time, had blond highlights in his spiky brown hair. He was 39 years old and drove a yellow Dodge Viper with the vanity plate “VIPERRRR.”
On a warm September night, he did what he had done dozens of times before. He dressed himself in black from head to toe and walked out of his apartment a few minutes before midnight, leaving his family behind. He drove to the local Tim Hortons at Mavis Road and Central Parkway West and picked up his 24-year-old accomplice and lover. Together, they headed toward a house on Napa Hill Court, near Yonge and Steeles. While the owners of the house, Aksana and Gregory Miakouchkina, lay fast asleep, Niezurawski snuck around back and gingerly opened the unlocked sliding glass door. Inside, he quietly snatched the car keys and purse off the kitchen table, then headed out and slipped into the Miakouchkinas’ $75,000 silver BMW X5 SUV, which was parked in the driveway. With his girlfriend following behind, Niezurawski drove off to Stately Way, a decidedly unstately street of townhouses in Markham, and parked the hot car at a designated drop-off spot.
For the average car thief, this would be a full night’s work. But Niezurawski was both talented and ambitious. At about 1:30 a.m., he and his accomplice headed south to Princess Avenue, near Bayview and Sheppard, where Raj and Virender Bagga were asleep in bed. Virender, then 66, was a social worker until a stroke left him wheelchair-bound and incapacitated. His wife, Raj, who was then 58, had returned home late from a United Way meeting—she volunteers as a fundraiser on the city’s South Asian Committee—and parked her new $60,000 grey Acura MDX in the driveway. Their daughter, Priya, who lived at home, was in Seattle that week, visiting her brother, Bob. Raj had left her purse in the family room before heading up to bed at 11 p.m. Niezurawski walked into the Baggas’ back garden through an open iron gate, took the screen off their patio window, broke the glass and crept into the family room. He grabbed the purse and took off through the back door. Outside, he removed the keys, two credit cards and $700 in cash, tossed the purse onto the grass, slid into the car and drove past his girlfriend, who was parked a few blocks away. The two of them headed to nearby Palomino Crescent to dump the car, then drove off together. It had been a good night: two cars stolen without a hitch, everything according to plan.
The next morning, Raj woke up early, made some tea, helped her husband get dressed, then looked out her bedroom window. Her Acura was not where she had parked it. “Am I dreaming?” she asked herself. “I got scared, started crying,” she recalled later, “then I started looking for my car keys but I couldn’t find my purse. I went to the family room and saw a window broken. It was very, very upsetting.” Anxious, she phoned her son in Seattle, who instructed her to call the police. But the call wasn’t necessary. The police had watched the whole thing.
A generation ago, if your car had been stolen, it was probably hot-wired. But the computer age radically changed the car theft business. Today, roughly 60 per cent of all cars manufactured for the Canadian market are equipped with ignition immobilizers that require a specific key to get the car going (an electronic chip sends an encrypted code to the engine’s computer, which allows the car to start). The devices are effective. Cars with immobilizers can’t be stolen by teenagers looking for joyrides or amateurs who steal cars for parts. Thanks largely to the immobilizer, car thefts are down in Toronto: 10,000 cars were stolen in 2005 versus 14,000 in 1996. But professional criminals, usually operating with underworld connections, have risen to technology’s challenge. The most troubling consequence of the immobilizer is the increase in home break-ins to steal car keys. In 2001, there were 190 such crimes. In almost every case, the homeowner wakes up to discover that someone has been in the house while they were asleep, usually between one and five in the morning, and their car is missing from the street or driveway. Their keys are often the only things stolen, all other valuables left behind.
Sam Cosentino, a solidly built detective with an earnest, straight-ahead gaze, joined the police department’s Auto Squad in 2002. Detectives in the 15-person unit suspected that organized gangs were responsible for the recent crime wave. They submitted a proposal to the head of the Special Investigation Services, outlining a planned crackdown. Cosentino, who had been with the police for 16 years—working his way up in the Traffic Department—was asked to lead the investigation along with a more experienced detective, Mark Barkley. As a lifelong car enthusiast, Cosentino was thrilled to be leading the case. He’d grown up in the east end and studied auto mechanics at Danforth Tech. “Working in the Auto Squad meant my two passions had come together,” he told me. “So I was on top of the world.”
The three-month operation, dubbed Project Rambler after the Rolling Stones song “Midnight Rambler,” involved enlisting 27 officers—detectives, undercover cops, information analysts—from the three most heavily targeted areas of the city: 32 Division, which includes the high-priced areas buttressing Yonge in North York; 53 Division, encompassing central Toronto, including Rosedale; and 22 Division, an upper-middle-class corner of Etobicoke. For weeks, Barkley and Cosentino sorted through intelligence reports on dozens of professional thieves and narrowed their list to five suspicious characters they believed were plotting jobs. Plainclothes officers were scheduled to watch the suspects in two shifts—late afternoon and night—until they were caught red-handed.
Niezurawski was one of the five. A Polish immigrant who’d come to Toronto in 1992, he was known to police. He’d already had a couple of brushes with the law, and they suspected him of running a six-man operation. In October 2001, Peel police arrested him for car theft, but without sufficient evidence to convict him, the charges were dropped. A few months later, cops from 32 Division arrested him for attempted auto theft and possession of burglary tools, but again, they couldn’t make the charges stick and the Crown withdrew them. Then, on June 26, 2002, three months before Project Rambler got underway, he was seen creeping through the tree-lined residential streets around Mount Pleasant and St. Clair. He had driven into the neighbourhood to inspect the local merchandise: a Mercedes outside a Garfield Avenue house and a Jaguar in the driveway of a house on MacLennan. Cops charged him with Prowl by Night, a criminal offence, and resolved to catch him before he struck again.
A third of all cars stolen in Toronto are sold locally. They’re often advertised in such magazines as Auto Trader for well below market value. Deals are made in cash and in public (Cosentino claims most illegal purchases happen in Tim Hortons parking lots). Another third end up disassembled, their parts sold to car repair shops. But by far the most lucrative way to sell a stolen car is to ship it overseas.
There’s a growing market for stolen Canadian cars on the west coast of Africa, in the Middle East, Asia and eastern Europe—places with few luxury car dealerships. The business elite abroad are often willing to pay well over the Canadian market price for used cars taken from the streets of Toronto. In some countries, import tariffs are so high that paying twice the going rate is still cheaper than importing one legitimately through a European dealership. In 1996, Polish police seized 11,000 vehicles that had originated in North America; 70 per cent of them were Canadian. The most sought-after cars are BMW X5s, Toyota and Lexus four-by-fours, Acuras, Infinitis and Range Rovers.
Toronto has more luxury vehicles than any other Canadian city, and because of our diverse demographics, car theft ringleaders frequently have connections to criminals overseas. They receive an order for a specific model, make and colour, then cruise around until they spot the desired vehicle. In 2002, the favourite target was older neighbourhoods where cars are frequently parked on the street or in driveways—lined up for the taking, like diamonds in a jeweller’s window. Most operators hire young guys to break into the homes, paying them roughly $1,000 per car. But some, like Niezurawski, steal the cars themselves and pocket the entire proceeds (“Niezurawski was greedy,” Cosentino says). Cars stolen in Toronto are usually exported from the country’s major ports in Halifax, Montreal or Vancouver, and the expense is negligible. A shipping container, which can house three cars, costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to send around the globe—chump change for a guy who stands to net hundreds of thousands.
Some mobsters give their stolen cars new serial numbers, but increasingly they don’t bother. Shipping a container of cars out of the country involves little more than falsifying a customs form. At the Toronto rail yard customs office, where containers are sealed before being put on a train out to a port, criminals simply claim they’re exporting washing machines or clothes or stereos. With thousands of containers leaving the ports every day, they’re almost never caught.
A report prepared by the Criminal Analysis Branch of the RCMP says that organized crime groups are operating “virtual stolen car pipelines.” But the Provincial Auto Theft Team—an OPP-led organization of 30 investigators that focuses on organized car theft—has seized or recovered a mere 803 stolen vehicles destined for export. The unit’s commander, Detective Staff Sergeant Scott Mills, admits that the recovery rate is low. According to numbers collected last August, 18,000 Ontario vehicles remain stolen and unaccounted for. Random checks of shipping containers are time consuming, costly and rarely done. Customs officers instead rely on tips to provide specific knowledge of shipments en route. And since September 11, port authorities are much more interested in what’s coming in than what’s going out.
The Project Rambler surveillance crew watched and took notes as Niezurawski broke into the two houses that September night. Mark Barkley is unapologetic about his officers’ decision not to intervene. “It’s better and safer to take a guy like that down when he’s out of the house,” he says. “Based on past behaviour, we knew that Niezurawski works lightning fast. He’s in, gets the keys and is out. He’s never violent. If we could have gone in there fast like him, we would have. But he’s crawling in through windows, and we’d have to break in doors. If we burst in there, we just would have scared the bejesus out of the homeowners.”
Raj Bagga isn’t convinced. Niezurawski was prowling around her living room. “The police watched what happened to us,” she says, her voice crackling with outrage. “The thieves could have killed us! They caught the guy—but on our lives! Suppose he came in with a gun and asked us for the keys?” At the very least, she wishes police had called her in the morning. “They could have let me know that my car was stolen,” she continues, “so I didn’t have to discover it myself.”
But the cops were too busy chasing down Niezurawski’s associates to contact the Baggas. As the sun was rising, they watched three low-level crooks drive to pre-arranged sites and pick up Niezurawski’s two freshly stolen cars. One of them was a 22-year-old Jamaican-born Canadian with a lengthy rap sheet that included drug trafficking and assault as well as car theft. The others were from Poland: two brothers in their 20s, one with a history of carrying a concealed weapon.
The three of them drove the cars to a warehouse on Chesswood Drive, near Keele and Finch, bearing the sign “Dynamic Int. Shipping Line.” The cars were to be packed up and shipped off to eastern Europe. Instead, that evening, Cosentino’s crew arrested the three men for their role in the thefts. And later that night, two other Project Rambler cops handcuffed Niezurawski outside his home. He didn’t put up a fight. The next day, nine cops—detectives, sergeants, uniformed officers—gathered outside the Chesswood Drive warehouse with a search warrant. Using a pry bar, one of them broke open the garage door. Inside, they found the BMW and the Acura concealed behind mattresses. They also found files documenting the export of other containers. The cops traced one to a port in Nova Scotia. The Halifax police opened it up and discovered two stolen Lincoln Navigators and a Lexus. Another container had already arrived at its destination in Nigeria and was never recovered.
Two more car theft rings were broken up by Project Rambler, bringing the total arrests to 27, with 133 charges, but Niezurawski’s was the biggest and most significant. Catching him in the act just 12 days after the Auto Squad launched its operation was considered a coup. The police department issued a triumphant press release, the papers picked up news of the bust, and in December, right on schedule, Project Rambler disbanded. Niezurawski, however, wouldn’t be stopped so easily.
Our criminal code doesn’t have a distinct section on breaking into homes with the intention of stealing car keys. Nor is there a section that specifically addresses car theft. When the officers arrested Niezurawski, they could only charge him with break and enter and theft over $5,000. Though the first charge carries the possibility of life imprisonment, judges rarely sentence car thieves to more than two years.
The case took three years to come to trial (in the meantime, Niezurawski, while out on bail, accrued yet another break and enter charge). He pleaded guilty on the understanding that charges against his girlfriend, who’d chauffeured him around that night, would be dropped.
In March 2005, at the 1000 Finch Avenue West courthouse, Niezurawski’s lawyer and the Crown jointly recommended a 60-day sentence. The judge, in considering their submission, made reference to the “potential for harm to innocent residents” and the “potential for tragedy [being] great in those kinds of circumstances.” He also conceded that 60 days was “certainly at the low end of the range…for this kind of offence.” But he was willing to accept the proposal, he said, because Niezurawski didn’t have any prior criminal record at the time of the home break-ins. In fact, much to Cosentino’s chagrin, the Crown lawyer, Tammy D’Eri, who declined my interview request, agreed to let Niezurawski serve the time on consecutive weekends. (Niezurawski’s wife left him while he served his sentence. Today he is married to his then-girlfriend, and together they have a baby.)
Niezurawski’s lawyer, David O’Connor, a tall, slim, patrician 61-year-old, thought he had done pretty well for his client. I met him in his cluttered office in a sprawling Victorian house on Lowther, sloppily renovated to accommodate law offices. “It was a good deal,” he told me, leaning back in his chair. And though Niezurawski went along with it, he wasn’t pleased. His clean record had been sullied.
If the cops weren’t happy about the light sentence, they were also not surprised by it. Elsewhere in Ontario, judges consider breaking into a home to steal a car key a major offence. But lenience is common in Toronto.
Niezurawski refused to be interviewed for this story, but O’Connor put me in touch with another client who makes a living stealing cars (he and an accomplice cut the security alarm wires at a dealership, break into the office, find the car keys and take off with six or eight vehicles at a time). He loves working in Toronto. “Toronto cops are too busy doing other things to pay attention,” he says. “Car theft is seen as a victimless crime. The insurance covers it and we’re all happy. I get paid, they get paid. I like to work here because if two cars disappear, big deal. York or Durham regional—those guys have the time to go after you.” He then told me about the time he was caught for a break and enter in Uxbridge. “I got 18 months for my first break and enter. In Toronto, it would have been 60 days.”
After the Project Rambler busts, word was out that the police were watching, and the number of home break-ins to steal car keys declined. There were just 54 in 2003. But, by 2004, the count was inching upward again. That year, there were 117. The number is likely to continue to increase as immobilizers become even more common. The federal government has mandated that all cars sold here in 2007 be outfitted with the device.
Sixty-day sentences simply don’t deter professionals like Niezurawski. Last July, on Canada Day weekend, he was arrested again. This time it was outside a home near Avenue Road and Lawrence. A neighbour spotted three men lurking in the middle of the night and called the police. A uniformed officer arrived just as the trio was creeping out of a house with the keys to the homeowner’s BMW. One of the guys got away with the BMW; another escaped on foot. The third guy—alleged to be Niezurawski—tried to run, but a cop caught up with him. He was held in custody for three weeks, then released on bail. He’ll likely appear before the courts this spring.