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Detectives slam brakes on shop

n Owner of a hot-rod shop and retired LAPD auto theft detective among suspects

Posted: July 1, 2009 10:33 p.m.
Updated: July 2, 2009 4:30 a.m.

A Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's deputy arrests Nellson Vels, owner of Billet Works Performance auto shop in Canyon Country on Wednesday.

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Authorities arrested four men Wednesday in connection with an auto-theft ring run out of a Canyon Country hot-rod repair shop, including the business’s owner and a retired Los Angeles Police Department auto-theft detective, officials said.

A multi-agency task force arrested Nellson Vels, the 50-year-old owner of Billet Works Performance and president of a local muscle-car group along with co-worker Daryl Perkins, 50, at Vels’ shop Wednesday morning.

Retired LAPD Detective James Ruffner, 66, of Canyon Country, was also arrested on suspicion of receiving a stolen aluminum vehicle trailer worth $10,000 and swapping the vehicle identification number to hide the crime. James Landon, 36, was also arrested in the case. The two frequented Vels’ shop.

Wednesday’s arrests resulted from a three-year investigation that found Vels and his associates have stolen at least one rare and pricey car and three high-end trailers they had built or repaired from their customers, said LAPD Detective George Molina.

Molina, a member of the Task Force for Regional Auto-theft Prevention, said he believes others may have had their hot-rod cars stolen after having them built or serviced at Billet Works.

The case intensified in February, when a customer’s red 1956 Chevy Bel Air convertible worth $108,000 was stolen out of the parking lot of a Valencia restaurant — while Vels was there dining with the victim.

Detectives said they later found pieces of it in Vels’ workshop and a stolen trailer in his possession parked on Sierra Highway.

But the auto-shop owner has been on the team’s radar for years, detectives said.

Last year, his associate Jerry Thompson, of Los Angeles, was convicted of stealing seven high-end classic cars in the San Fernando Valley. One of those cars had been built at Billet Works Performance, where Thompson used to hang out. Thompson is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

The shop has served as a social hub for hot-rod enthusiasts, including several law-enforcement officers, said LAPD Detective Jess Corral.

Vels himself is president of the local United Muscle Car Association. Former LAPD Detective Ruffner, who lives nearby, also used to frequent the shop and was a member of Vels’ muscle-car club.

About 9 a.m. on Wednesday, detectives clad in bullet-proof vests strode into the Vels’ workshop — a small, fluorescent-lit garage crammed with muscle cars in various stages of completion.

They had Vels and Perkins in handcuffs seconds later.

The caravan of police cars and cadre of detectives that raided Billet Works drew neighboring business owners out of their shops. They stared, surprised, as police placed Vels and Perkins in the back of a patrol car.

“It’s a real shocker,” said Albert Artiles, owner of neighboring business Artiles Foreign Car Restoration. “I thought they were coming in for parking tickets or something.”

Others, who asked not to be named, said they never noticed anything suspicious about Billet Works Performance and that Vels seemed to have close friendships with nearly all of his customers.

“He does a lot of nice work,” said Kevin Torres, owner of KTM Auto Repair. “(They’re) honest people. He’d never do anything.”



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