Authorities on the prowl for auto thieves

Joint effort aims to keep number of auto thefts in county on the decline

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

Published:

 

Vehicle thieves

Use our interactive chart to learn more about the people arrested for stealing vehicles in Clark County.

Auto crime prevention tips

• Lock your vehicle.

• Don't leave valuables in your vehicle, especially where someone could see them. Thieves often check under the seats for valuables.

• Keep the windows rolled up all the way while the vehicle is unattended.

• Don't leave a vehicle running unattended. Stay inside the vehicle while it warms up.

• Older vehicles can benefit from additional crime deterrents, such as a steering wheel club.

• Keep track of car keys. If you leave them at home -- even if the house is locked -- someone could break in, swipe the keys and drive away in your car.

Source: Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority

Vehicles are stolen to:

• Trade for drugs or money.

• Sell the vehicle parts.

• Go joyriding.

• Have transportation.

• Commit other crimes.

Source: Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority

Did you know?

• The number of local auto-related crimes can influence auto insurance rates.

Source: State Farm Insurance

Vehicle thieves

Use our interactive chart to learn more about the people arrested for stealing vehicles in Clark County.

Auto crime prevention tips

• Lock your vehicle.

• Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle, especially where someone could see them. Thieves often check under the seats for valuables.

• Keep the windows rolled up all the way while the vehicle is unattended.

• Don’t leave a vehicle running unattended. Stay inside the vehicle while it warms up.

• Older vehicles can benefit from additional crime deterrents, such as a steering wheel club.

• Keep track of car keys. If you leave them at home — even if the house is locked — someone could break in, swipe the keys and drive away in your car.

Source: Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority

Vehicles are stolen to:

• Trade for drugs or money.

• Sell the vehicle parts.

• Go joyriding.

• Have transportation.

• Commit other crimes.

Source: Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority

Did you know?

• The number of local auto-related crimes can influence auto insurance rates.

Source: State Farm Insurance

When Rhonda Ouchida’s co-worker at Urban Styles Salon and Spa said she didn’t see Ouchida’s car parked outside, the nail technician just laughed.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Ouchida said. “I laughed and said, ‘It’s out there. I’m here.'”

The 52-year-old drives to work and always kept her 1995 Honda Accord in the same spot outside the salon, which is in a complex near the Battle Ground Cinema. So, when her ride was stolen in broad daylight on Dec. 19 last year, she was shocked and frustrated.

“I walked out of work thinking I lost my mind,” she said. “Where did my car go?”

On the day after Christmas, a week after the theft, Battle Ground police told Ouchida her car had been recovered and she would need to retrieve it from a tow yard in Clackamas, Ore. She paid about $450 in fees to get her car back. Whoever stole it apparently removed her radio, damaging the dashboard in the process, and stole some valuables she had in the trunk.

Ouchida’s narrative echoes thousands of others in Clark County. Her 90s Honda Accord is the most commonly stolen car locally and across the state.

Although auto thefts are declining locally, stealing a vehicle is still one of the top crimes in Clark County. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office hopes to make a sizeable dent in local cases with the help of a Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority grant that supports a prosecutor dedicated to convicting offenders of auto-related crimes.

From 2004 to 2013, there’s been an 87 percent increase in arrests related to auto theft. The number of vehicles reported stolen dropped from 2,045 in 2009 to 1,687 in 2013. Crime Analyst Brian Salsig, with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, projects that by the end of 2014, the number of auto thefts will drop even more.

Working together

When Salsig floated his grant proposal, both police officers and prosecutors were on board, he said. Historically, there’s been some discord between the enforcement and prosecution sides of these cases. After police investigate and present what they believe is sufficient evidence, the case may be dismissed, depending on the prosecutor.

“Each prosecutor likes to handle the cases differently,” Salsig said. “Now, everything is much clearer. … Auto theft is finally getting some consistent attention.”

Since Greg Harvey began working as the auto theft task force prosecutor in December 2013, the percentage of dismissed vehicle theft cases has dropped from about 20 percent to about 5 percent. He’s helped standardize what evidence is needed to move a case forward. His job is to prosecute people who take vehicles, prowl them or who otherwise end up with a stolen vehicle. Such crimes are often related; a criminal who steals cars also steals things out of them, he said.

So far, Harvey said he’s seen plenty of “serial stealers,” or thieves who specialize in a particular crime. Between November and December of last year, one offender stole 13 cars, he said. Salsig recalls one case where a pair of friends decided to see who could steal the most cars. One of them reportedly stole nearly 20 cars in a single day. He told police he couldn’t remember where he stashed some of them.

In another recent case, Battle Ground and county law enforcement officers learned that stolen vehicles were possibly being dismantled at a rural Dole Valley residence. The Tactical Detectives Unit served a search warrant, taking two people to jail and recovering two stolen vehicles, two stolen trailers and a stolen firearm.

If prolific offenders are imprisoned, Harvey said, it keeps them off the streets and the number of auto thefts drop. He keeps a list of high-profile offenders, builds relationships with detectives and supports them when they want to pursue a big case. “All the hard work officers are putting into these cases is resulting in convictions,” he said.

Despite encouragement and a dedicated employee from the prosecutor’s office, the reality is that local police agencies don’t have units dedicated to investigating auto crimes, or any kind of property crime. Patrol officers take on cases when they can, along with their regular assignments, or otherwise detectives investigate them in connection with a bigger case, perhaps connected to drugs.

Looking for answers

Ouchida doesn’t know who stole her car and working with local police to try to figure that out was frustrating, she said. “I was kind of doing my own investigating. I dealt with an uncooperative police department.”

When Battle Ground police called her, she learned that the Clackamas County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Office found the car around 2 a.m. Dec. 20 (the day after it was stolen), abandoned in the parking lot of the Clackamas Town Center.

She found a box of movie candy inside her vehicle that she assumed the thief got at the nearby Battle Ground Cinema before stealing her car. She also found a fingernail clipping in the backseat and looked into whether there was security footage showing what happened in the parking lot.

She said police didn’t seem interested in her information or her case.

A Battle Ground police officer took a report about the theft, but wasn’t able to find any evidence or identify a suspect, said Chief Bob Richardson. The vehicle was entered into a national database of stolen vehicles; that’s how Clackamas deputies knew it was stolen when they found it at the mall.

“While TV shows portray officers lifting fingerprints and DNA material off of every item, entering the information into a database, and a few minutes later, a suspect’s name, photo and current address show up on the monitor — that’s not real life,” Richardson said.

Catching someone in the car, finding evidence that identifies them or having a witness to the crime makes it easier to solve a case, he said. Without enough evidence, Ouchida may never know who stole her car.

Crime of opportunity

Clark County auto thieves, who are most often white men in their 20s, target older cars because they are easier to steal.

“Usually the people who get their car stolen are the ones who are least likely to able to afford another one,” Salsig said. “When your car’s gone, you lose this whole ability to get things done.”

Salsig said he believes auto thefts will decline as fewer older cars remain on the road. When newer cars are stolen, it’s typically because the thief obtained the keys, he said. Thieves will have to evolve to overcome newer ignitions or pick a different crime.

“A lot of these guys just haven’t reached that next level,” Salsig said. “I don’t know if they’ll get there or not.”

That doesn’t mean people should ease up on securing their vehicles. Even though police are arresting more suspected auto thieves, the number of reported vehicle thefts haven’t declined as quickly.

Auto-related crimes are, more often than not, crimes of opportunity, Harvey said. Take away the opportunity and you reduce the chance of being a victim.

Over the last year, Ouchida worked to reduce her prospect of being a repeat victim. Her husband installed an alarm in her car, as well as his own, a 1996 Honda station wagon. Despite what it’s been through, she said her car is the best she’s ever owned. It’s paid off and it’s dependably gotten her around town for the last five years. Someday, she’ll get a different car, but for now she’s sticking with the Honda — even if that entails an increased risk of theft.

She’s changed her habits, however, now parking near the salon windows, and knows she shouldn’t leave anything valuable in the trunk.

Before the theft, she had never been a crime victim. It makes her history somewhat charmed, she said. Perhaps, she’s just lucky. A friend with the same model has had it stolen twice.

People are supposed to be vigilant about securing their cars and homes, but at the same time, Ouchida said, you can’t sit around worrying and waiting for crime to happen. There’s only so much you can do now that the days of leaving doors unlocked and windows rolled down are long gone.

“Normally I’m not a suspicious person or anything,” she said. “I’d like to believe humanity is good. … You don’t want to walk around being afraid.”