The car was a beater, the last thing you'd think anyone would steal. It wasn't the car that caught the thief's eye, though, but the belongings inside. He ripped out the stereo, of course, but also everything else of easy value: backpack and school books, sunglasses, even the windshield wipers.
And the car? The thief dumped it and ran.
"I couldn't even believe it. It was a 1985 Nissan," says Wes Riddle. "A tin cup."
Riddle, 17, says he parked the car near an entrance to the NorthTown Mall a few weeks ago, between two sparkling 2000-model Fords. After a movie, he and his girlfriend came out to an empty parking space.
Riddle hoped it was friends playing a prank. It wasn't. He had become the latest person struck by Spokane's auto theft plague.
While violent crime in Spokane has declined in the last couple of years, auto thefts are surging upward. It's not unusual for city residents to report 15 vehicles stolen over a single weekend.
"It's the biggest rise in crime," says Dick Cottam, spokesman for the Spokane Police Department. In the first nine months of last year, thieves drove away with 935 vehicles in the city. This year, in the same period, the number was 1,290.
That's why city police are speaking with their county and state brethren and insurance investigators to decide whether it's time to form a auto theft task force, says Spokane Police Capt. Glenn Winkey, commander of the investigations division.
"We're looking at the statistics and trying to get our arms around the scope of what the auto theft problem exactly might be," says Winkey.
Among the questions police officials need to answer are these: How organized are the car thieves? If they're working together, how can they be broken up? The police say they'll decide probably by the end of the year whether to pull detectives into an auto theft unit.
By that time, the number of this year's victims will likely top 1,500 people.
HIGH TIMES BEHIND THE WHEEL
One might presume that many a stolen auto goes to fund some meth addict's habit. One would be correct.
"Almost every stolen vehicle we find has drugs in it, usually meth," says Winkey.
There are numerous other motivations for stealing cars, though, like getting a dig at an estranged family member. Some addicts lend their drug suppliers a car in exchange for a hit or two, only to lose the car. And some people, driven by poverty or sheer selfishness, steal cars for transportation, police say -- sometimes stealing one to drive across town, and a second to get back.
But taking other people's rides is not always a spur-of-the-moment matter, according to police. Winkey tells of one man arrested by police who carried a list of vehicles he'd noticed were usually unlocked. Then there are the habitual hot-spots for stolen vehicles, including the Division Street corridor in North Spokane, the lower Cannon Hill neighborhood, and, ironically enough, the streets around police headquarters between Monroe and Cedar.
Sgt. Michael Yates, in charge of the combined city-county crime analysis unit, says one factor encouraging car thieves is lack of prosecution. Yates tells of prolific offenders who may steal a car here and use the credit cards inside for fraud somewhere else. The thief might be arrested two or three times over several months of his criminal career, but in different parts of the city -- Spokane police divide the city into four districts -- or the county. That means, says Yates, several different arresting officers, different supervisors, often different prosecutors. The net effect is a sometimes disjointed law enforcement reaction.
For career petty thieves in and out of jail, "getting arrested is a minor inconvenience," says Yates.
Carlin Jude, the supervisor of the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney's property crimes unit, says the seven lawyers who prosecute felony-level property crimes in Spokane County can't keep up with all the cases police refer. That means setting priorities, says Jude.
Auto thefts, along with bad checks and other non-violent thefts, take a back seat to authorities' prosecution of burglars, says Jude, "because burglary endangers people."
Auto thefts are a lower priority with the police on the street, too. There are domestic violence cases, assaults, rapes and the occasional homicide, after all, not to mention high-profile bank robberies and stickups. And of course there's the meth problem, which is gobbling up more and more of the police department's time. Criminals probably do realize they are operating among the cracks in the wall of local law enforcement.
"There's not a whole lot of time left within the detectives' division when we do what the law mandates," says Winkey.
So stolen cars can fall to the end of the line, says Yates.
"Sometimes, there isn't a recognition that 8 percent of the population commits 80 percent of the crime," says Yates. "The more effectively you deal with that 8 percent, the more effectively you deal with crime."
That's the sort of thing Chief Roger Bragdon's information-led policing could get a handle on, says Yates, and why the crime analysts have begun searching the records that pour through their office. They've identified a core of 50 to 100 bad guys who have the highest records for property crimes, including car thefts. This is the beginning of the "targeted offender program" or "repeat offender program" that Spokane police are instituting in cooperation with prosecutors. The idea is simply to coordinate efforts against the crooks who make a living preying on property and people, says Yates.
"We're at the stages of bringing the players on board," he says. "Now, we've got patrol officers coming in, saying 'Hey, I've seen this guy again.' "
The sort of criminals that police want to keep an eye on include people like a North Hartley Street man named Andrew.
Andrew, 27, racked up numerous run-ins with authorities in recent years, according to court documents. Then on Oct. 4, Spokane police arrested him on an outstanding warrant for vehicle theft. According to court records, the resulting conversation went something like this: "Let's make a deal," Andrew asked police. "You charge me with just one count of theft, and I'll show you where some stolen autos have ended up."
A police detective thought Andrew knew of three or four stolen cars. He showed authorities 15. They were Nissan cars and pickups, with a sprinkling of Subarus that Andrew had allegedly stolen between late May and October, police wrote in court records.
The alleged thief told police he carried "cheater keys," or old car keys that are shaved down and often start ignitions, especially in certain vehicle brands. He said he'd walk along a street or parking lot, trying one car after another.
Andrew, one officer wrote, "stated that he could 'peel' the stereo within a couple of minutes of stealing the vehicles and would sell them for the amount of $40-$200."
But a deal's a deal. Andrew tasted freedom after posting bond on the single count, court papers say. But temptation remained, and a week later, police allegedly saw him driving around in another stolen vehicle. After a pursuit that ended with running over a set of spike strips, Andrew was back in jail, where he remains as of this writing.
On December 12, Andrew is scheduled for arraignment in Spokane County Superior Court on 15 counts of vehicular theft.
auto theft AS A CAREER
Spokane police boast an impressive recovery rate of about 80 percent of stolen automobiles.
That means of the 15 vehicles stolen over a given weekend, 10 or 12 owners see their autos again. One or two of those were likely "borrowed" by angry family members or drug dealers. The remaining several are probably cut apart -- "chopped" -- and sold to unscrupulous mechanics, police say. Parts sometimes wind up for sale at online auction sites, where airbags and car stereos are hot items.
One ploy involving auto theft that police have seen, says Capt. Winkey, might be called the chop-and-buy scam.
A thief will steal an automobile. A gang or group of cohorts strips the car of its seats, doors, whatever -- just enough for an insurance company to declare it totaled when authorities find it on the street, says Winkey. The hulk of the car goes to auction, where one of the criminals bids and buys it.
"For twelve hundred bucks, they buy a $17,000 or $18,000 Honda," explains Winkey. Armed with a legitimate title, the gang re-assembles the car and sells it to the unwary.
But scams like this require organization -- either from small groups or mob activity -- as seen in Western Washington. (Although Spokane's auto theft rate is relatively high, it's not as bad as those in Tacoma and Seattle, which both suffer much higher rates of auto theft than Spokane. Indeed, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, both are in the top 10 worst in the nation.)
Evidence of organized crime might include not just numbers of stolen cars, but the infrastructure necessary to handle them -- crooked mechanics, chop shops or groups altering the identification numbers stamped on all U.S. automobiles. Just the sort of thing that authorities told a U.S. District Court judge they were seeking when they applied for a search warrant last week.
Agents from the Washington State Patrol and several federal agencies participated in the resulting raid on an East Riverside Avenue auto yard on Nov. 13, according to court documents. Besides a .38-caliber revolver, a personal computer and unidentified papers, police seized a couple of car stereos and two separate license plates.
State Patrol Detective E. J. Swainson says he cannot comment on that case specifically, as it remains ongoing, but says the three State Patrol auto-theft detectives stationed in the area have seen car-thief gangs.
Police don't know how many, but a "substantial amount" of Spokane's auto thefts are organized rip-offs, he says. A lone thief just isn't going anywhere making a couple hundred dollars or less per theft -- not unless he can sell the automobile to someone who knows how to run the scams.
"As soon as you start talking about improving the amount of money you get as a thief, you start developing organizations," Swainson says. "And there are many. There are many."
Police, meanwhile, have to set priorities, especially with a lean 2002 city budget. The evidence suggests that at least some of Spokane's auto thieves have joined forces and gotten organized. The question for police is, can they get organized, too?