Police continue the search for the driver of a car with fake paper tags that led to the police chase that ended with the death of a Grand Prairie police officer Monday night.
NBC 5 Investigates learned from law enforcement sources that the tag's number was first issued by the DMV this past spring and had since been reproduced hundreds of times.
Officer Brandon Tsai was near the intersection of Belt Line Road and Pioneer Parkway Monday night when he spotted a silver Chevrolet Malibu with a fake paper license tag. Police said Tsai tried to stop the driver when he failed to yield, but that the driver instead chose to try to speed away.
Tsai collided with another police cruiser during the chase and died from his injuries.
The driver of the Malibu got away; their identity is not yet known.
Police said Tuesday that the Malibu's fake paper tag, which was 0330S43 and expired in September 2022, had been recorded on hundreds of vehicles in the Dallas-Fort Worth area -- making the so-called "ghost car" difficult to track down.
"It's incredibly difficult. Our leads are this make and model of this car. The tag is worthless. There's hundreds of cars that are displaying this very tag, but we're not DONE," said Daniel Scesney, Grand Prairie Chief of Police, during an emotional news conference Tuesday afternoon.
"I can submit to you that our experience dictates these tags aren't put on cars just because there is nothing wrong," Scesney said. "I suspect, can't back that up just yet, but there's more to this and I can tell you that every detective that works in this department is looking into it."
PAPER TAG NATION
For more than a year NBC 5's investigative team has been looking into the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles' paper tag system and how criminals have been able to gain access to it and exploit it for millions of dollars in illicit gains.
"We have fictitious tags all over the place, and quite frankly, it costs a cop his life. It's a problem," Scesney said.
Paper tags can be legitimate, but they can also be entirely counterfeit if they were printed or copied and sold by a criminal abusing the state's temporary tag system.
NBC 5's reporting has exposed how criminals obtained dealer's licenses and used the state's online system to create and print thousands of tags that were then sold on the black market.
"So now with that PDF and you have, you know, Adobe Pro, you can manipulate all that information and create any tags however you want to create it," said Sgt. Jose Escribano, with the Travis County Constables Office.
"This is a problem that is plaguing the entire state where violent offenders, burglars, car thieves, are using these fictitious tags to conceal their identities and facilitate crime," Scesney said Tuesday afternoon. "The system is broken. We have to fix the registration issue. It's too easy to display a fictitious tag and it's putting our officers in danger because too many crooks are using these tags to facilitate crime, particularly felonious crime."
SEARCH FOR 'GHOST CARS'
NBC 5 Investigates showed how criminals registered with false names and addresses created what police described as "ghost cars," or vehicles whose information in the state database was as phony as the paper tag on the vehicle.
After NBC 5 exposed the scale of the problem, the Texas DMV made changes making it harder for criminals to get car dealer licenses and limiting the number of licenses that each dealer can print.
Law enforcement officers who spoke with NBC 5 Investigates said it's difficult to monitor 20,000 dealers and fake tags are still on the road.
"We try, but there's only like, you know, very few of us," Escribano said. "How do you keep tabs with the 20,000? You don't. You can't. It's literally impossible to do right now with what we got. So a lot of them are going to go under the radar."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defunded special police units that once investigated fake tags in large counties, including Dallas County, when he vetoed a clean air program in 2017 that helped fund those units. Abbott said at the time that he had objections to a different program also funded by that bill.
NBC 5 Investigates reached out to the governor's office on Tuesday afternoon but has not yet received a reply.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Terry Canales has expressed interest in reinstating the funding and his office said he is continuing to work on the problem.
NBC 5 Investigates will continue to stay on the paper tag problem as the legislature reconvenes in January.
Monday's incident in Grand Prairie is at least the second involving law enforcement in Texas in the last 24 hours where an officer was hurt or killed pursuing a driver with a fake tag. In Lakeway, outside of Austin, police are searching for the driver of a stolen car with a phony tag who struck two police cars Monday night while making an escape.
Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and indictment of the driver. Tipsters may remain anonymous and can call 972-988-TIPS or share their tips online at gpcrimestoppers.org.
PAPER TAG NATION
- March 27, 2023- Texas DMV's New Paper Tag Design Easily Counterfeited, Police Say
- Nov. 17, 2022 - Texas DMV Redesigns Paper License Tags to Include New Security Features
- Nov. 15, 2022 - Police Searching for Paper Tagged 'Ghost Car' in Deadly Grand Prairie Chase
- June 1, 2022 - Police Make Bogus Tag Bust Tied to Social Media Ads
- May 18, 2022 - TxDMV Names New Executive Director Amid Paper Tag Crisis
- May 17, 2022 - Vehicle Used in Dallas Salon Shooting Had Paper Tag
- May 12, 2022 - Ads for Fake Tags Persist, Despite Facebook, TxDMV Efforts
- May 4, 2022 - Texas' Paper Tag Problem Compounded by Small Dealers Misusing Them
- May 3, 2022 - Dallas Police Shut Down Accused Fake Paper Tag Dealer
- April 26, 2022 - Texas House Set to Hold Paper Tag Hearings
- April 14, 2022 - Texas DMV Cracks Down on Dealers Selling Temporary Paper Tags
- April 13, 2022 - TxDMV Closes Inspection Loophole That Put Unsafe Cars on Roads
- April 12, 2022 - Dallas Police Go Undercover to Fight Illegal Paper Tags
- April 7, 2022 - Police Warn of Fake Paper Tags Used to Cheat Car Buyers
- April 5, 2022 - Texas Senate Will Investigate Illegal Paper Tag Crimes, Smuggling
- March 9, 2022 - Texas Paper Tag Crime Danger Extends Nationwide
- March 5, 2022 - Texas House Will Hold Hearings on Paper Tag Mess
- Feb. 28, 2022 - License to Smuggle: Drug Cartels and Human Smugglers Use Paper Texas Tags to Evade
- Feb. 15, 2022 - Fort Worth Police Announce Special Operation Targeting Paper Tags
- Feb. 14, 2022 -- Crash Victim's Parents Want More Cops to Police Paper Tag Fraud
- Feb. 13, 2022 - More Funding Need to Fight Criminals Using Bogus Paper Tags: Police
- Feb. 10, 2022 - Police Report Drop in Fraudulent Tags But Warn Crooks Are Adapting
- Feb. 9, 2022 - Texas DMV Shuts Down Six More Dealers Suspected of Selling Paper License Tags
- Feb. 7, 2022 - TxDMV Director Resigns Amidst Paper Tag Mess
- Jan. 27, 2022 - TxDMV Takes Emergency Action to Keep Crooks From Selling Paper Tags
- Jan. 21, 2022 - Dallas Police Operation Targets Fraudulent Paper Tags
- Jan. 17, 2022 - Recording Shows Police Warned TxDMV of Paper Tag Security Flaw Years Ago
- Dec. 16, 2021 - DMV Committee Recommends Fingerprinting Some Dealers to Slow Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 14, 2021 - Texas House Transportation Chair Vows to Stop Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 6, 2021 - Texas DMV Boss Deflects Blame for Paper Tag Debacle
- Nov. 23, 2021 - Illegal Paper Tags Costing Texas Taxpayers and Toll Roads Millions
- Nov. 10, 2021 - Suspected Paper Tag Peddler Shut Down Tuesday, Reopens Wednesday: Investigators
- Nov. 8, 2021 - How Texas Paper Tags Became a $200M Criminal Enterprise: NBC 5 Investigates