By Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel
3:38 PM EST, December 28, 2012
It was a mystery no one could solve — until now.
For months, dozens of people could not use their keyless entry systems to unlock or start their cars whenever they parked near the Hollywood Police Department. Once the cars were towed to the dealers, the problem miraculously disappeared.
Police have since cracked the case.
Turns out the problem wasn't with the cars, the batteries or even user error, but an illegal pirate radio station that was jamming the signal from keyless entry systems of several makes of cars, including Lexus and Toyota. The man behind the bootleg operation likely had no idea it would lock people out of their cars, police say.
Lynn Jacobson, who lives on Van Buren Street a mile west of police headquarters, was frustrated for months trying to get into her car.
"It was happening every day," Jacobson said. "We were getting desperate. It got to where every time I went out to the car I'd say, 'Please let it open.'"
Detectives are still searching for the man who set up the bootleg station on the roof of the eight-story Regents bank building at 450 Park Road, a block north of police headquarters. The station was broadcasting Caribbean music around the clock through 104.7 FM, police say.
If found, the man could be arrested on felony charges and face a fine of at least $10,000 from the Federal Communications Commission.
An undercover detective and FCC agent found the equipment on Dec. 6 concealed under an air conditioning chiller.
Four days after they removed the equipment, a man identifying himself as "Jay" left a message for a maintenance worker at the bank building, police say. When the worker returned the call, "Jay" asked if he'd taken his equipment. The answer: No, but the cops did.
Most people have heard of pirate radio stations blocking legal radio stations. But keyless entry? That's so rare it's only happened once before, two years ago in Miami, an FCC official said.
News of the bootleg radio station stunned drivers who'd initially heard the culprit was an antenna behind the Hollywood Police Department. The problem ended as mysteriously as it began, leaving many wondering how it had been fixed.
"How do you like them potatoes?" said Mannolie Disantos, a manager at a nearby Radio Shack where several stranded car owners flocked when their electronic keys failed, only to learn their key batteries weren't dead after all. "We were blaming it on the police. The police were blaming it on the courthouse. We didn't know what was going on."
The problem began in August, said Jacobson, right afer she purchased her champagne-colored Lexus. She figured she'd bought a lemon.
"At first I thought it was me," said Jacobson, who started to say a little prayer every time she tried to use her electronic key. "It wasn't me. It had to be the car."
Jacobson called the closest Lexus dealership, in North Miami, only to learn other car owners were phoning daily with similar complaints.
"Something mystical was going on," said Jed Jacobson, her husband. "We didn't figure out it was only happening in [our] neighborhood until later."
The dealership told customers it suspected the Hollywood Police Department had changed the frequency of its radio antenna.
Jose Camara, a service manager at Lexus of Pembroke Pines, knew of several customers whose locked cars were towed to the dealership.
"Some people thought their batteries had gone dead," he said.
Managers at the dealerships, saying they couldn't replicate the problem, sent owners home without a fix.
Most drivers were forced to read their owner's manual to learn how to access their manual key, Camara said.
Cars made by Ford, Lexus, Toyota, BMW and Mercedes reportedly were affected.
Despite the threat of hefty fines, pirate radio stations continue to crop up throughout South Florida, said Rob Frailing, a ham radio expert from Cooper City.
In February, the FCC slapped Robens Cheriza with a $20,000 fine after he ignored the agency's warning to stop operating a pirate radio station in West Palm Beach.
Last year, Fort Lauderdale resident Whisler Fleurinor was fined $20,000 for running a bootleg radio station on 99.5 FM.
Mercius Dorvilus, of North Lauderdale, was arrested in 2011 after deputies caught him operating a pirate station that broadcast Haitian music on 92.7 FM.
"People want their own music to be played on the radio, so they set up their own radio station," Frailing said. "I think most people do it because they want to be a DJ and they want to be heard. We have it happen a lot here. We have a lot of people from other parts of the world who don't realize they can't do this. It's a crime."
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