Friday, March 27, 2015
From the list of the list of Photo Exhibits of State in the trial of Adnan Syed for murdering Hae Min Lee:
As you can see, the second photograph described on this page is a "Close-up of Sentra ignition - ***ignition collar missing." So, what is an ignition collar, and what significance could the fact that it was missing have with regard to the death of Hae Min Lee?
"The ignition collar is the ring or collar around the steering column which contains the ignition lock cylinder." If you watch this video about removing the multifunction switch in a 2001 Sentra, you can see the ignition collar being removed starting about 32 seconds into the video. Here's a screenshot of the collar being removed:
Why would someone remove the ignition collar? As you can see from the above video, one reason would be to repair/replace something in the steering column, such as the multifunction switch.
Traditionally, another reason was to get to the wiring so that the car could be hotwired/stolen. From the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Missouri in State v. Jordan, 699 S.W.2d 80, 82 (Mo.App. 1985):
The evidence was that when the Corvette was recovered shortly after its theft the police officers found gloves, screwdrivers, and a device known as a dent puller inside the car. Ms. Cooke testified these items were not hers and were not in the car the night of April 27, 1980, when she parked the car at her apartment. The police officers also found the ignition collar on the floorboard of the car, and the ignition in the steering column was missing. The prosecutor's argument was that the presence of these items demonstrated that the thief was a professional.
If Hae's Sentra were a 1994 Sentra, removing the ignition collar would have been a good first step toward hotwiring her car, which is why the 1994 Sentra was among the 10 most stolen cars in 2011, 2007, 2006, and 2005. In the mid-1990s, however, many car companies, including Nissan, introduced new locking mechanisms.* Now, removing the ignition collar would not be a good first step toward hotwiring a "modern" car, which generally can only be done by drilling the lockpins, using a screwdriver in the ignition, or somehow powering the dash through the hood (depending on the type of car).
Saulsberry-Davis v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2005 WL 1653932 (N.D.Ind. 2005), illustrates this point. In Saulsberry-Davis, the plaintiff owned a BMW that she insured with State Farm. One day, the Gary Fire Department responded to a report that the BMW was on fire in a lot, and the plaintiff, who still had the key to the car, claimed that the BMW was stolen. State Farm denied the plaintiff's claim, contending that she faked the car theft. According to the court,
Among the results of the investigation that weighed most heavily on State Farm's decision is the sophistication of the anti-theft devices that were present on the plaintiff's car. Specifically, her BMW contained EWS II, a system that worked independently of the mechanical ignition lock. In an EWS II system, a transponder in the key electronically transmits a variable code when the car is started. The ignition and fuel supply do not operate until receipt of the correct signal from the key.
Also supporting State Farm's position was deposition testimony by its expert, Steven L. Miller:
Q. What did you find?
A. I found the ignition lock housing collar.
Q. And where did you find that?
A. On the surface of the floorboard.
Q. I'm assuming that that's not where that would normally be in a vehicle?
Q. Where is that usually located?
A. On the steering column....
Q. What component did you look at first?
A. The ignition lock housing collar.
Q. What is it you're looking for when you're looking at that component?
A. Marks from a screwdriver or a hammer, impact or pry marks.
Q. Are you looking for these marks with your naked eye?
A. I've got a microscopic -- it's a lighted microscopic scope that I look through.
Q. And that's also at your desk?
A. Yes. It's in my car but I use it.
Q. So did you examine the ignition lock housing component under that microscope?
Q. Did you remove any portion of that component, separate it to examine it?
Q. Did you use any tools in your examination?
Q. And what did you find after you examined that component?
A. No evidence of damage from force.
In other words, removing the ignition collar is no longer a viable first step in hotwiring most modern cars, and, if a car thief tried to remove the collar without a tool like the one used in the above video, you would likely see evidence of damage from force.
So, what does the missing ignition collar in Hae Min Lee's 1998 Nissan Sentra tell us? I see several possibilities:
1. The ignition collar was missing prior to January 13, 1999, due to someone previously repairing or trying to repair something in the steering column.
2. Hae came upon someone unsuccessfully trying to hotwire her car.
3. Hae was killed outside her Sentra, and the murderer never had or lost her keys and subsequently tried in vain to hotwire the car.
4. Hae was killed inside her Sentra, the killer later disposed of or lost her keys, and then the murderer subsequently tried in vain to hotwire the car.
5. After Hae's Sentra was dumped behind the row houses off Edmondson Avenue, someone tried in vain to hotwire her car.
6. The photo was taken after someone working for the police or the body shop where the Sentra was stored removed the ignition collar to try to repair the possible issues that existed with the windshield wiper and/or turn signal levers.**
Previously, I have written about the question of whether there was actually a "broken" lever in Hae Min Lee's Sentra. That question was seemingly answered by Hae Min Lee's brother, who posted that he remembered the turn signal lever hanging/dangling when he picked up Hae's Sentra from the police.*** Is it possible that this damage to the lever resulted from someone trying to hotwire Hae's Sentra? Was the hole in the steering column observed by Detective Forrester the "hole" resulting from removal of the ignition collar? Does the missing ignition collar tell us anything about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed, anyone else connected to the case, or an unknown third party? Is there an alternate explanation for the missing ignition collar?
I don't know.
*I'm assuming that removing the ignition collar of a 1998 Sentra would not be a good first step toward hotwiring, but some expert confirmation would be nice.
**Obviously, this would present serious chain of custody issues.
***By the way, we now know that Hae's Sentra was released to her brother on March 7, 1999. From the Vehicle Processing Report:
This means that the police had Hae's Sentra from March 1, 1999-March 7, 1999, the Sentra was likely at the body shop belonging to Hae's uncle from March 7, 1999-March 16, 1999, and then Detectives Forrester and Hastings made the video of the car on March 16, 1999.