Stolen, recovered, burned

The case of the month involves a vehicle that was reported as stolen and then was subsequently recovered. Unfortunately, it was badly burned. GEI was assigned by the insurance company to inspect the vehicle for signs of forced entry, compromised door locks or steering locks, defeated ignition systems, and to determine the origin & cause of the fire.

The vehicle was inspected at the impound yard. While the engine compartment suffered only minor fire damage, the fire consumed all of the combustibles of the interior.

Forced entry marks were found around the driver’s door handle. The sheet metal around the driver’s door lock cylinder had been bent to allow access to the rear of the driver’s door lock cylinder. However, although the driver’s door lock cylinder was slightly fire damaged, it was still in place. The vehicle was not equipped with a right side door lock cylinder. Upon examination with a microscope, no indications of the use of a “Slim Jim” type tool were found to the sheet metal surrounding the doorjambs, window frames, and door handle areas. The door weather stripping was consumed; the window trim and window channels were fire damaged. The door latch mechanisms were in place, undamaged, and undefeated in their respective doors. The plastic front door handles were fire damaged; the plastic rear door handles were consumed. The rear doors showed no signs of attack. This vehicle was not equipped with a trunk lock cylinder.

The steering column lock components were found partially in place, fire damaged and appeared undefeated. The remains of the ignition switch components were fire damaged. The ignition switch assembly and key guard were found in their expected post-fire position, in the drivers foot well, directly beneath the steering column.


The remains of an ignition key were found in place, in the ignition switch key guard. The ignition switch lock wafers were in place and undefeated. The ignition switch key guard, the ignition switch lock wafers, and the remains of the key were removed from the vehicle for safekeeping.

This vehicle was equipped with an OEM transponder system. The transponder system makes it more than difficult to start the engine without the proper key. The ignition key has a microchip placed inside the plastic head of the key. To operate the vehicle, the microchip sends a signal allowing the engine to start. Without the key, the chip, and the signal from the microchip, the engine will not start. Barring the use of sophisticated equipment, this would have prevented the vehicle from being started without a proper key. The key found in the ignition switch lock cylinder had the plastic key head burnt away, but was otherwise intact.

The origin of the fire was on the seats. The cause of the fire was the ignition of a flammable liquid on the seats. The fire progressed from this point outwards following available fuel, until it totally consumed all flammable materials that once were in the interior of the vehicle.

At this point in the investigation, the client asked the insured for their vehicle keys. One key was supplied and forwarded to GEI’s forensic locksmith, along with the key and lock assembly that was salvaged from the vehicle. The locksmith then carefully disassembled the lock assembly to extract the lock wafer tumblers.

The recovered wafer tumblers were undamaged by the fire and had not been physically attacked or defeated.

The supplied key and the fire damaged key proved to be identical.

In conclusion, forced entry damage was found at the driver’s door handle. The sheet metal was bent to allow access to the rear of the lock cylinder. No other signs of a forced entry attempt or the use of a ‘Slim Jim’ type tool were found on the vehicle. Given that the ignition key was found in place, the bent sheet metal was a red herring. No obvious items of value were removed from the vehicle prior to the fire (wheels, battery, bumpers, lights, air bags, fenders, doors, engine components, etc.). This ruled out a theft motivated by the desire make a few dollars by selling parts at a swap meet or to a black market body shop. While the mechanism of the theft could have been a tow truck or trailer (with the accompanying noise and attention), it was more likely that it was driven to the site of the fire. The cause and origin of the fire was the ignition of a flammable liquid on the seats. The key recovered from the vehicle was identical to the key furnished by the insured.

We seldom hear how a given claim is finally settled, but in this case with so many red warning flags waving, we are pretty sure that it turned out well for our client.

The teenaged vehicle theft – Oh really?

The insured’s daughter parked her vehicle at school and when she came out of class the vehicle was gone. Then she noticed that she had lost her key. The vehicle was later recovered by the police and returned to the owner. The owner then filed a claim with their insurance company for transmission damages and damage to both the exterior and interior surfaces. GEI was assigned to inspect the vehicle and determine if the claimed damages to the exterior, interior, and transmission were a result of the theft.

Our expert examined the vehicle and documented its condition with several photographs.

The interior of the vehicle was examined.

The normal (or expected) time and heat related wear-and-tear damages were found in the interior trim, panels, and seating areas. None of these damages were a result of a recent date-of-loss incident. A square hole was found in the driver’s seat and the worn edges of the hole indicated that this damage was not recent.

Fresh and minor scrape damages were found on the left side of the rear bumper cover. However, the majority of the exterior damages were not new and were therefore not related to the reported theft and recovery.

Old repaired scratches were found on the right front fender, and one of the scratches was covered with magic marker ink. Recent and old curb impact scrapes were found on the right front wheel and tire.

A significant amount of aged, rock-caused chips in the paint were found in the left and right front fenders. Minor rock chips were also found in the front area of the hood. The worn edges of the chip areas indicated they were aged and not fresh.

Old cracks and damage were found in the paint of the right side door. “Touch-up” paint was found on the right side of the rear bumper cover.

Minor old scratches were found on the trunk lid. One of the bolts securing the rear license plate was missing and the plate was off-kilter. The right taillight assembly was loose; a small hole was found in the clear plastic. The remainder of the trunk area appeared in good condition. No damages were found on the roof or the window glass.

These damages were common and expected in a vehicle of this age. They were the result of daily driving and normal parking lot occurrences. The various scratches, stone chips, and “door dings” had occurred at different times, as indicated by the condition of the edges, the underlying paint, and metal corrosion.

The hood was opened to access the engine compartment. No theft activity was found in the engine compartment. The battery needed to be replaced, as it had failed due to age. The engine oil dipstick was removed for examination; the engine oil was found at its proper level. The coolant was found at a slightly low level. A power steering hose was seeping fluid and nearing failure. This was also a wear-and-tear issue and not related to the reported theft.

The underside of the vehicle was examined. No apparent external damage or other indications of impact were found to the vehicle’s underside or its other suspension components.

The transmission was removed and disassembled prior to the vehicle inspection, so its internal condition was also observed.

The removed and disassembled components of the automatic transmission were severely damaged. Over time, the transmission generated sufficient heat to wear out many of the transmission’s internal components. Very recently a catastrophic failure occurred that fractured the rear of the shift drum. The vehicle’s operator would have been aware of the reduction in the automatic transmission’s performance prior to its ultimate failure.

The transmission catastrophically failed because of a lack of maintenance that accelerated the effects of age and wear-and-tear.

In conclusion, the observed damages were not recent and were not caused by the reported theft.