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Man pretends to be a pilot to steal cars from small airports

A serial car thief is pulling off an unusual scheme across the Midwest. So far he’s been able to scam his way through three states.

While most car thieves opt for breaking windows or making threats, this man prefers deception over destruction. His target is small municipal airports and the city-issued cars kept there.

“The guy was pretty slick,” said Mike Haeffele, Ottawa’s director of public works n Kansas. “He comes in and he talks like he knows about airplanes.”

Haeffele is in charge of the city’s fleet and had just returned Tuesday from a flight to Arkansas to retrieve the stolen car, where the thief left it, tank on empty, only to take a fully fueled one from an airport down there using the same ruse.

“He ran it out of gas and then took our car, which was full of gas,” said Clarksville, AR, Airport Manager Jim Looney.

The man came to the Ottawa airport armed with enough knowledge to pass as legit.

“He used a different pilot’s name,” Ottawa Municipal Airport Manager Robin Flager said. “He had a tail number.”

The man, who used the name David Bullock, which Ottawa police now believe was false, came in almost a month before the theft, talking about his interest in buying some jet fuel. He came back later and said he’d need a “crew car” for an out-of-town pilot.

“The courtesy car is there for them to use to go into town, to get something to eat, get a motel, whatever and then come back out here,” Haeffele said. “He gave us a tail number for an airplane, a pilot’s name, said the guy was coming in was going to need a car, and we set the car out for the pilot.”

He took off last Wednesday evening. The skies were stormy on Thursday, so no one suspected anything until Friday, when he still hadn’t returned.

The staff checked the tail number. It came back to a plane that hadn’t been used for six to eight months. The pilot the man had named had no knowledge of the deal. The staff contacted law enforcement.

Surveillance from that night showed the man wiping down another car, inside and out, before getting into Ottawa’s 1995 Crown Victoria. The other car was a 2000 Crown Victoria belonging to the city of Cameron, MO.

It seems he “borrowed” the Cameron crew car, drove it to Ottawa, then took off in the Ottawa car. Ottawa’s car then appeared over the weekend in Clarksville, AR, where he checked out that airport’s crew car. The Arkansas car is still missing.

The only thing different about the Ottawa car was all the fingerprinting ink on it.

“We could not see damage, so it’s not like he’s tearing the cars up,” said Haeffele. “I think he’s just taking the cars as a free ride to get somewhere.”

The ruse cost the city financially insofar as the time and gasoline required to retrieve it. But it also offended the staff on a different level.

“I do not like dishonest people,” Haeffele said. “Pilots in general are trustworthy people – a tight-knit group.”

The airport manager said it troubles her that she and her staff will now have to approach that group differently.

“You have a person that is now going to make us tighten policies and procedures for everyone because of one person’s misdoings,” Flager said. “This is the first time I guess you can say that we’ve been burned. I hate to start looking into everybody as if they’re guilty. I refuse to do that. We are still a friendly airport, but we will change procedures and tighten up things.”

Police have no idea where the man is headed or why. Because they don’t know his real name, they don’t know if he’s actually a pilot or not.

They have provided multiple stills photos of him taken from surveillance video inside the Ottawa Airport lobby. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Ottawa Police Department dispatch at 785-242-1700.

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