Dude, where’s my car?
In the upside-down year that is 2020, more Allen County residents have asked that question — or some version thereof — this year than at any time in recent memory.
Motor vehicle thefts in Allen County are on pace to obliterate numbers from previous years, according to officials with the Lima Police Department and Allen County Sheriff’s Office, with 111 reports of stolen cars, trucks and other motorized vehicles logged with those agencies through the first nine months of the year.
While a spokesman for the LPD said many of the vehicle thefts are linked to a friend or associate of the victim and are often little more than a misunderstanding, Detective Don Geiger of the Allen County Sheriff’s Office said stealing cars for others in the criminal underworld is a cottage industry.
“It’s a big business,” the veteran deputy said earlier this month while discussing an overall increase in car thefts in the county. And business, he said, is booming in Lima and Allen County.
Through the end of September, the number of stolen vehicle complaints handled by the sheriff’s office this year stood at 41 (30 autos, eight trucks and/or buses and three other vehicles). That number surpasses the 30 such complaints investigated by deputies during all of 2019. The number of stolen vehicle complaints stood at 27 in 2018, while in 2017 there were just 16 cases.
In the city of Lima, 68 stolen vehicle were reported to police through the first nine months of 2020, an increase of 18 from the same period in 2019, according to Detective Sgt. Jason Garlock.
In August and September alone there were 17 incidents reported to the LPD. After reviewing each case, Garlock’s findings revealed that:
• One owner had his vehicle parked in front of his residence and was unsure where the vehicle’s keys were.
• Eight of the incidents involved the suspect being a friend or associate of the victim who had access to the vehicle and keys.
• In five incidents, the owner left the keys inside an unlocked vehicle.
• One incident involved a dispute over the title to the vehicle.
From Lima to Dayton
Geiger said vehicles stolen in Allen County often turn up in Dayton.
“They (car thieves) take the vehicles there and sell them for parts, then use the money to buy their heroin and meth. We are now starting to work with the Dayton Police Department’s auto theft division after a number of vehicles stolen here turned up down there,” the detective said. “Fortunately most of them have been recovered.”
The success rate for finding stolen autos is fairly high; Geiger estimated 75% of vehicles are eventually located. They are not always in pristine condition when recovered, however.
“Sometimes a stolen car will be involved in a pursuit and will end up being crashed, and other times the stereo may be missing or other items in the vehicle will have been stolen. Other times we just find (stolen vehicles) in a parking lot.”
When cars are found in larger cities, Geiger said, they’ve more often than not been stripped and sold for parts.
“We just recently had a string of thefts, maybe a half dozen, and there is now a person in custody in connection with those incidents,” he said. “We’re pretty sure he took the vehicles in question, but it could be difficult to prove.”
In July, LPD officers arrested and charged two juvenile suspects for multiple vehicle thefts. Garlock said it is believed these juveniles were responsible for at least four separate vehicle theft incidents.
A crime of opportunity
Geiger said car thieves as a rule are not a particularly sophisticated nor energetic bunch.
“Stealing cars is just a crime of opportunity. They go through a neighborhood checking to see if people have left their keys in the car,” he said.
If they have, the pickings just got easier.
“The majority of vehicle thefts involve the keys being left in them,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason as to where the cars might be located when they’re stolen. Some are parked along city streets, and others are parked inside garages.
Geiger said newer model cars with keyless entry and keyless starts may be contributing to the increased number of thefts. The detective said drivers sometimes get lazy and simply keep a key fob inside the vehicle at all times.
“For a car thief, that’s great,” the detective said.
Geiger said motorists need to get into the habit of removing keys from a vehicle each time they exit.
“They need that to be their routine,” he said. “Actually in some cases, owners may have difficulties with their insurance company” if a report shows the keys have been left in the vehicle.
Geiger said finding car thieves can be a difficult proposition, and he understands the frustration of victims when that’s the case.
“As law enforcement, that’s why we do proactive things such as making traffic stops that to the general public may seem frivolous,” he said. “But if we don’t catch someone in the (stolen) vehicle, it can be difficult to prove in court. We just want to be able to find the people that are causing these problems and bring them to justice.”
“Many of these incidents begin as a minor theft where the suspect is rummaging through an unsecured motor vehicle for money or property,” Garlock said. “The suspect then locates a set a keys to the vehicle, steals the vehicle, and the crime then escalates to a felony.”
A national decline
Despite the overwhelming increase in car thefts locally this year, according to the annual “Hot Spots” report issued by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there has been a nationwide decline in motor vehicle thefts in recent years.
The 2019 “Hot Spots” report lists Lima as 305th in the country with 95 vehicle thefts, a rate of 92.8 thefts per 100,000 residents. Mansfield was 281st with 138 thefts or 177 per 100,000 residents. The top spot in Ohio for car thefts last year was the Columbus metro area, with 258 thefts per 100,000 residents — good enough for 108th highest in the nation.
Bakersfield, California, was ranked No. 1 nationwide in the 2019 report with 6,538 motor vehicle thefts. Rounding out the Top 10 were Albuquerque, New Mexico; St. Joseph, Missouri; Modesto, California; Odessa, Texas; Yuba City, California; Merced, California; Yakima, Washington; and Springfield, Missouri.
To avoid becoming a statistic, Garlock urged drivers to make sure doors are locked and secured when leaving their vehicles.
“Do not leave keys in the vehicle, do not leave money or property in plain sight inside the vehicle, and when possible park your vehicle inside a secured structure or well-lit area,” the LPD detective urged.