Dealerships on alert after string of carjackings during test drives

car heist

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - A valley man is in custody after a high speed chase that started as a test drive at a local car dealership.  The Riverside County Sheriff's Department said Carlos Contreras of Coachella allegedly tried to steal a vehicle from Palm Springs Motors in Cathedral City.  Local car dealerships say its a technique thieves have started using more often lately. 

Jimmy Irizarry is the salesman who first helped Contreras at the dealership.  Irizarry said he and Contreras went out on a test drive when things took a turn towards the end.  "He said the trunk was open and I said, it's not safe to drive it like that," said Irizarry.  "So I went out of the vehicle to close the trunk, he just took off." 

Deputies say he drove up to 100 miles per hour during the chase that ended when Contreras crashed the car at Jefferson and Avenue 42 in Bermuda Dunes.  He ran from the vehicle but was quickly caught and arrested.  "The driver got stuck in the sand and took off running," said Lieutenant John Shields from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. "Our deputy chased him down and caught him in the desert." 

Palm Springs Motors General Manager Scott Simmers said the attempted carjacking is just the latest in a string of thefts at local car dealerships.  "We had an occurrence at Fiesta Ford, there was an occurrence here today," said Simmers.  "There's also been three other occurrences that happened down in the Cathedral City Auto Center."

Simmers says people come in asking to look at a new car.  When the salesman pulls the car out, the thief jumps in and drives off before anything can be done.  To better protect salesmen and cars coming on and off the lot, the dealership's taking more safety precautions.  "Everybody carries a smartphone, they take a picture of driver's license," said Simmers.  "That way we know who they're going to be out on a test drive with."

Simmers also has a message for any thieves who are thinking about taking one of his cars on out on a joy ride in the desert.  "I just say beware, we're kind of on our toes right now." 

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