HOLLYWOOD -- It was a mystery no one had the answer to -- until now.
For months, dozens of people could not use their keyless entry system to unlock or start their cars whenever they parked near the Hollywood Police Department. Once the car was towed to the dealer, the problem miraculously disappeared.
Police have since cracked the case.
Turns out the problem wasn't with the car, the battery 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.
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 a new one.
News of the bootleg radio station stunned Jacobson and others 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 until told by a reporter.
"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 back in August, said Lynn Jacobson, who lives a mile west of police headquarters on Van Buren Steet.
Jacobson, who'd just purchased her champagne-colored Lexus, figured she'd been sold 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 they suspected the Hollywood Police Department had changed the frequency of its radio antenna behind the station.
Jose Camara, a service manager at Lexus of Pembroke Pines, knew of several customers whose cars were towed to the dealership when their keyless entry failed.
"Some people thought their batteries had gone dead."
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 were affected, said Camara and the manager at Radio Shack.
Despite the threat of hefty fines, pirate radio stations continue to crop up throughout South Florida, said Rob Frailing, an expert in ham radio who lives in Cooper City.
Last year, the FCC warned Fort Lauderdale resident Whisler Fleurinor to stop operating a pirate radio station on 99.5 FM. When he ignored the warning, the FCC slapped him with a $20,000 fine.
Mercius Dorvilus, of North Lauderdale, was arrested in 2011 and charged with a third-degree felony after deputies caught him operating a pirate station that broadcast Haitian musci 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."
Lynn Jacobson, for one, is glad the mystery has been solved.
"It was happening every day," she said. "We were getting desperate. It got to where everytime I went out to the car I'd say, 'Please let it open.' "
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(Flickr photo by *christopher*.)