Windsor woman thought her belongings were safe in a gym locker. Then her car was stolen

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The GoodLife gym at Tecumseh Mall in Windsor, Ont. A Windsor woman says her gym bag was stolen out of her locked locker, and her car stolen from the parking lot. (Dax Melmer/CBC)

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It was a brazen theft from under her nose: A Windsor woman says her car was missing for days and she’s out thousands of dollars after her bag was stolen from a gym locker this week. 

Kelly Rincon said her ordeal started on Saturday, when she went to the GoodLife gym at Tecumseh Mall. She locked her bag into a locker and did her workout. When she returned, her belongings weren’t where she’d left them, the lock having apparently been cut off. 

“So I immediately panicked because I said, ‘Oh my God, like, somebody took my bag,'” Rincon said. 

Rincon said she immediately went to check on her car to see if it was still in the lot, because her keys were in the bag. It was, and she continued to keep an eye on it as she alerted staff and started calling the police.

It was when mall security got there and insisted she speak to them inside that Rincon said she left the car alone.

She saw what happened next play out on parking lot surveillance footage after the fact. 

“You can clearly see like these people were waiting outside, inside of a black Ford pickup truck,” Rincon said. 

“Five minutes later, you see me running outside. They watch me [check on my car] to see if it’s still there. They see me  trying to open the doors. 

“When the security guards brought me inside … that’s when you can see them pull up to my car, one of the men get inside the car and drives off with the car.”

Rincon said she’s “so frustrated” by the theft. 

“It’s honestly one of the [worst] feelings in the world to know that you work so hard for what you have … and then people out there don’t care.”

Rincon said she was told her belongings, as well as another woman’s purse, were stolen by a woman who signed up for a day pass. She says staff told her they didn’t take the woman’s identification because she didn’t have it on her.

Rincon said she’s been in touch with GoodLife management, who were apologetic even as they told her they’re not liable for any loss or theft — even though she said members are encouraged to use the lockers to prevent tripping hazards on the gym floor. 

A spokesperson for GoodLife confirmed that guests must show ID, but couldn’t confirm whether that policy was violated in this case, citing the ongoing police and internal investigations.

The fitness chain said, however, that it’s taking steps in response to the theft, including ensuring that staff “are enforcing our secure check-in processes when guests and members enter our clubs.”

“GoodLife is taking this criminal behaviour very seriously. It’s upsetting that an individual would target our members in this way,” Kelly Musovic, senior director of experience and safety with the company, said in a statement.

Rincon said she is frustrated with police, as she’s been calling constantly trying to get action taken on her case, even now that her car was recovered. 

“I’m not getting answers from the cops. Like, I’m not saying they’re not doing their job, but I just think that they don’t think that car theft or any of these things like stealing documents … is high priority. 

“I don’t think they understand what this does to us.”

Windsor police did not provide comment by deadline. But the service was recently involved in a wide-ranging effort to tackle car thefts in Ontario.

Last week, police announced 23 people had been charged — and 279 charges laid — in an auto theft investigation spanning five law enforcement agencies. Cars were destined for illegal sale in five countries. 

In Rincon’s case, her vehicle was dumped behind another local gym and has since been recovered by police. She doesn’t have the keys, and said the interior is likely ruined. 

And because her permanent resident card was in her wallet, it, too, is gone and a pricey vacation cancelled without recourse. 

“It takes up to three months to get a PR card. Unfortunately I needed one for Friday,” Rincon said. “I lost my airline ticket which was $4,000 on top of everything else that I lost.”

It’s cost her about $200 in replacement cards, she said, as well as putting blocks on her credit so that the thieves can’t apply for credit in her name. Rincon said she’s afraid for her safety and the possibility of the thieves coming to her home. 

“Basically they have my identity with them. So like, they could do anything at this point.”

Rincon said years ago her car was stolen and was missing for nearly nine months. As far as she’s aware, the perpetrators weren’t caught in that case. 

“It has happened more than once to me and I’m just sick of it,” she said.

Accused in thefts involving vehicles later sold abroad also come from London, Toronto area

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Det.-Insp. Andy Bradford from Ontario Provincial Police speaks to the media at a Project Fairfield news conference Thursday in Windsor. (TJ Dhir/CBC)

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Twenty-three people from Ontario face 279 charges after a widespread investigation into a large string of auto thefts related to a “sophisticated crime group.”

Windsor police, Ontario Provincial Police and other law enforcement agencies made the announcement in Windsor on Thursday. Investigators say the cases involve 138 stolen vehicles and more than $500,000 in illicit drugs. 

Border services, police from London and the Regional Municipality of Peel, and the anti-fraud firm Équité Association were involved in the effort, dubbed Project Fairfield. 

Police said the luxury vehicles, newer model pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles were stolen from the Windsor area.

The culprits modified the vehicle identification numbers, known as “re-vinning,” police said. The vehicles were exported to countries including Kuwait, Lebanon, Colombia and the Congo, and sold through private sales.

The investigation saw a breakthrough when police stopped a known “re-vinned” vehicle on Highway 401 near Kingston. Police said the stop resulted in the seizure of drugs, including 14,914 synthetic opioid tablets. 

“Project Fairfield has demonstrated that a collaborative approach is required to bring sophisticated criminal groups to justice,” said Marty Kearns, OPP deputy commissioner.

Investigators said they also seized more than 1,000 methamphetamine tablets, about 2.2 kilos of cannabis, about half a kilo of cannabis concentrate, 320 grams of cocaine, $144,635 in Canadian money and $26,698 in U.S. currency.

David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada, said these situations aren’t unique.

“It’s a testament to the gravity of the problem right now.”

Adams said organized criminals see this method of theft and resale as “a low-risk, high-reward proposition.” And southern Ontario and Quebec offers easy access to the Port of Montreal.

“Manufacturers can try and build the most robust vehicles that they can,” he said. “But the thieves are always just one step behind — and in some cases, further ahead.” 

This sort of theft is a larger problem in Canada than in the U.S., says Michael Rothe, president of the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association.

“The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates this is costing Canadians a billion dollars a year,” he said.

“To put it in comparison, the U.S. — the aggregate number of stolen vehicles — is on par, meaning it’s 10 times the size in Canada than it is in the U.S.”

Rothe said the problem has become worse since Ontario disbanded its dedicated auto theft team. 

Huw Williams, president of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association, called the recent bust “very, very significant,” and one that shows the magnitude of the problem.

“It’s not a victimless crime,” he said. “All Canadians are victims of this.”

Of the 23 people charged:

  • 13 are from Windsor and one is from nearby Belle River.
  • 2 are from London.
  • 2 are from Mississauga.
  • 1 each comes from Kitchener, Woodbridge, Barrie, Richmond Hill and Toronto. 

The Windsorites who were charged range from ages 22 to 64.

One man, 35, faces 46 charges. 

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Thieves have been targeting the old Silver City building on Walker Road regularly for more than a year, its co-owner said. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

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The owner of the former Silver City building on Walker Road says he’s lost more than $650,000 due to property damage caused by thieves trashing the place while searching for copper and other metal to sell. 

Joseph Mikhail of Mikhail Holdings said the property has been targeted “non-stop almost on a weekly or daily basis” for nearly a year now.

Insurance won’t cover this,” he said. 

Mikhail sent an email to police in February appealing once again for their help, saying, “In all my years doing business in Windsor, I have yet to see such outright lawlessness and vandalism.”

It began when vandals dismantled the power grid servicing the building and the parking lot, cutting off all power to the premises, he said.

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Damage caused by thieves stealing metal, such as pipes, from the former Silver City building on Walker Road. (Submitted by Joe Mikhail)

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“Somebody without the knowledge could have easily killed themselves by touching it,” he told CBC. “So there’s some knowledge involved there.”

Next the individuals tore down drywall in the interior of the building to strip out wires and copper.

Recently, he said, they have climbed onto the roof and destroyed heating and cooling units valued at $100,000.

“We have welded doors shut, we have boarded them with locks and heavy screws, we have sealed garbage compactors — videos, security, we have done almost everything possible,” Mikhail told police in an email.

“But they come with hard hats, tools and ladders … professionals … you would think … but what professional would destroy over $650,000 of a building to take about $2,000 in metal?”

Cineplex announced in January 2022 that it was closing the location on Walker Road.

At the time, Mikhail told CBC he could see few options other than to tear down the building. 

Now, he said, he has begun renovating the building and has applied to the Ontario Ministry of Health to repurpose part of it as a private MRI clinic.

Police have visited the building “dozens of times” with canine units, Mikhail said.

But he added, “You can’t guard that building with one or two people because it’s a large facility. It’s a block, right? So we have cameras. We have security. We have police … but these individuals — they want to get in.”

A security consultant for Electricity Canada, which represents the electricity sector, says the laws around the theft of non-ferrous metals are not very strict. 

“If somebody steals 10 pounds of copper, on the one hand you could say, ‘Well [that’s] $30 or $40 [worth of] theft …It doesn’t reflect the replacement cost,” Ross Johnson said.

When thieves steal wires, workers have to go out to a site, assess its safety, replace grounding wires, search the entire premises to ensure other grounding wires are intact and the facility is safe, and repair damaged fences. 

Electricity Canada is calling on the the province to enact regulations that will prevent metal recyclers from buying metal from sellers for cash.

“There needs to be an audit trail,” Johnson said.

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Thieves have torn apart drywall to access copper wire. (Submitted by Joe Mikhail)

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“We worked with the Alberta government for several years, and now we have a law in there where somebody that goes in and brings in copper has to show identification like picture ID and … the information is taken down by the recycler, and they’re paid by cheque.”

But the president of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries balked at Johnson’s suggestion, saying scrap metal dealers already maintain records of their transactions for tax purposes.

“Requiring additional recording is redundant and unnecessary and does not assist in identifying stolen material,” Tracey Shaw said.

“What’s more, there is no evidence this ultimately reduces the incidence of metal theft.”

Statistics from the Windsor Police Service’s online dashboard show that the number of break and enters in the city increased 15 per cent from 1,247 in 2021 to 1,437 in 2022. 

They are up slightly again in the first two months of 2023 – a total of 207 break and enters compared with 197 during the same period in 2022. 

Mikhail owns a number of properties in the city, and they’re all being targeted, he said.

“Situations have changed in the city. I can’t put my finger as to why,” Mikhail said.

“We’re prospering in Windsor. People have jobs. There’s employment. Our economy is strong. But we seem to have way more of these types of vandalism than when the economy was much weaker. And I can’t explain it.”

Security cameras and copper clad steel ground wires just some of ways thefts are being discourage

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Tom Kaschalk of Metal Supermarkets checks out some cold rolled steel at his store. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

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A rash of metal thefts in Windsor have left some companies such as Mikhail Holdings Inc., owners of the Silver City movie theatre building, out tens of thousands of dollars. But others are taking measures to thwart the thieves.

Enwin Utilities is using a copper clad steel ground wire on their poles which is harder to cut and harder to fence.

“It’s almost impossible to economically to extract the copper out of this cable,” said Jim Brown, vice-president of hydro operations.

The owner of the Metal Supermarkets franchise on Walker Road is installing security cameras, has barbed wire on this fence and is employing other security measures to protect his new metal inventory.

“We’ve got to do our due diligence. I gotta protect my investment,” said Tom Kaschalk.

Thieves are also targeting parked cars for catalytic converters. There are precious metals inside the emission control devices that fetch a lot of money.

“They get more at the scrap yards for those metals than just a regular piece of steel,” said Const. Adam Young of the Windsor Police Service.

Young says it’s difficult to prosecute metal thieves because even if police find them with the metal it’s untraceable because the metal won’t have a serial number.

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Example of a catalytic converter police in Mississauga etched with an ID number to thwart thieves. (CBC News)

Peel Regional Police recently held an event where they etched identification numbers on the catalytic converters for motorists.

The Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI) has teamed up with its US counterpart to maintain the Scrap Theft Alert website.

Companies and individuals can report thefts of metal to the website so police and potential buyers of scrap metal in that area can be on the lookout for the stolen merchandise.

Tracy Shaw, the president of CARI, says metal recyclers have policies in place to help deter thieves and mitigate theft.

These policies include setting up seller accounts; using video cameras throughout their facilities; training staff to notify a supervisor if suspicious-looking material is brought in; and working with law enforcement,” said Shaw in an email to CBC.

With regard to catalytic converters Shaw said: “The market for stolen material like catalytic converters is primarily driven by mobile dealers and online marketplace sellers. Unregulated online markets such as Facebook Marketplace offer an easy, relatively anonymous forum for selling stolen material with little to no scrutiny.”

Young also suggests parking in a well lit, visible place when leaving your vehicle unattended.

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