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To catch a car thief: Curbing a county epidemic

Brock Haskins loved to steal cars and had a special taste for Ford pickup trucks. He would spray down the interiors with WD-40 to eliminate any finger prints, then steal the lights, the seats, or whatever he could lay his hands on.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described the Auburn man as part of an epidemic that earned King County an unwanted reputation for many years as one of the top spots in the nation for car thieves to ply their avocation.

Yet car thefts are down, and many of the poster thieves of yesteryear, like Haskins, are in prison and likely to be there for a long time.

“The chances of you today finding your car where you parked it before lunch is twice as good it was two years ago,” Satterberg told the Rotary Club of Auburn Wednesday at Grace Community Church.

This change for the better is no accident, Satterberg said, but the result of changes in the sentencing guidelines, energized police and prosecutors and a bag of new tools machined to catch thieves in the act.

Satterberg said that from 1984 to July 2007, car theft ranked as the lowest-level felony in King County. A big part of the problem was the sentencing schema determining when a person graduated from jail to prison. Before July of 2007, seven convictions were required to earn a car thief 12 months in jail, with half off for good time. The message to car thieves was clear: it’s easy to steal a car in King County; your chances of getting caught are low; and if you do get caught, little to nothing is going to happen, Satterberg said.

Worse yet was the demoralizing effect on police and prosecutors — why, they asked, should they pursue car theft cases with any zeal if the policy was no better than “catch and release?”

Satterberg said the sentences did not reflect the seriousness of the crime. Car theft, he said, is costly, inconvenient, and, especially to the people caught in the path of a stolen car screaming down the highway at 120 mph, extremely dangerous.

“Each of these guys is a one-man crime wave. They use stolen cars to steal mail out of your mailbox, and to do burglaries,” Satterberg said, adding that all an alert neighbor who witnessed such criminal acts can do is give police the license plate number off a stolen car, a dead end.

So in 2005 the King County Prosecutor’s office created a special unit whose only purpose was to focus on car theft. The attorneys went into the field and talked to police officers, knowing that a good case begins with the patrolman on the street. And they instructed officers in the many little things they needed to do to make the charges stick.

They also worked with police to identify the 20 most prolific thieves in the region then began to follow them.

“We’d know when they were in jail and when they got released and were supposed to come to court and when they were in prison and got released from prison,” Satterberg said. “And by following them, we confirmed what we knew already — that a very small percentage of people were doing a huge percentage of these cases.”

Police watched time and again as wrongdoers just out of court or even visiting their probation officers would drive up or away in a stolen car. Then officers would move in and make the bust.

Time and technology have given officers tools such as bait cars and sophisticated license plate readers to catch car thieves.

In the 2007 Legislative session, King County persuaded state lawmakers to change the sentencing guidelines. Today after the third car theft an offender goes to prison for 17 to 22 months; every theft thereafter nets the thief a 43-to-57 month sentence, or about four to five years. Satterberg said the new “price tag” better reflects the danger car thieves represent to the general public.

Today car thefts are down. In 2005, the first year that special unit began to focus on car theft, almost 18,000 cars were reported stolen in King County. By 2007, that number had dropped just above 11,000, a 36 percent drop. And in the first quarter of 2008, car thefts are down a projected 55 percent from 2005.

As a result of these changes, 15 of the 20 most prolific thieves are now in prison.

So what about Mr. Haskins? In September of 2005 Auburn police searched his home and recovered multiple stolen firearms and other stolen items, along with chemicals and equipment for making methamphetamines. He was convicted of more than 10 felonies and is serving a 96-month prison sentence.

“When you add all these things up, you can see we are having some success,” Satterberg said.

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