News

Car thefts get neighbors revved up

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Tom White screaming in the middle of his street is uncommon, but so is his car being stolen out of his driveway in the middle of the day.

Since July 25, White and two of his Federal Way neighbors have had their vehicles stolen from their homes. A day after White was yelling as the thief drove his car away in broad daylight, Frank Laky walked out to get the newspaper. It was there, but his GMC truck was gone. Then last Tuesday, Karen Noel’s son, Justin, was leaving their house for his first day at a new job. His Acura wasn’t in the driveway.

All three vehicles are back with their owners. All three are damaged to some extent. White recovered his Hyundai after watching it go by on a busy street and stopping the driver.

The neighbors, who live in the 2800 block of Southwest 349th Street, say they feel violated and frustrated. The thefts disrupted their lives, their quiet neighborhood and continue to be on their minds and hitting their wallets. Who took their vehicles remains a mystery, and they question –– with some displeasure –– why more isn’t done to track down the crooks and put them in jail.

While Noel and White were trying to find out what could be done to stop the car thefts in their neighborhood, King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng was announcing in Seattle that police and his office have had enough.

Suspected car thieves are going to get more attention from prosecutors, and Maleng promised quicker turnaround on charging suspects and seeking longer sentences. There will also be a top-10 list of car thieves in the county.

Maleng has created a new unit to bring car thieves to trial quickly and “vigorously prosecute” the cases.

Washington has one of the highest car theft rates in the country, Maleng said, and in the last eight years the percentage of vehicle thefts has increased 60 percent.

Maleng and State Patrol Chief John Batiste said there is a connection between car theft and other crimes, including drugs, robbery, rape and child victimization.

The State Patrol has troopers and detectives devoted to stopping car theft, and Batiste said last year troopers recovered $5.7 million in stolen cars. And that was only a small portion of what is stolen.

Federal Way Police chief Anne Kirkpatrick joined Maleng at the press conference. Representing the King County Police Chiefs Association, she said law enforcement agencies in the county will work together to develop a standard system for gathering evidence.

In Federal Way, there were 1,200 car thefts in 2003 –– an average of three daily –– according to Kirkpatrick. The number fell in 2004 to 1,100.

She speculated some of those thefts are due to the city’s access to Interstate 5. Kirkpatrick also pointed to the city’s proximity to Seattle, Tacoma and north Pierce County, where car thefts are high.

While her doesn’t have officers focused solely on catching car thieves, Kirkpatrick said Federal Way Police has its own top-10 list of the most prolific thieves.

A Maleng spokesman said the prosecutor’s office won’t ask the County Council for more money to pay for the new three-person unit, but would use existing funds. In the future, positions might be back-filled to handle the increased work load.

For now, Maleng said deputy prosecutors will just work harder. Starting the new unit will also mean a change in institutional behavior, he added. Maleng’s spokesman, Dan Donohoe, said the prosecutor’s comments meant the office would take a more aggressive approach to cases filed by law enforcement.

While car theft is a felony, Maleng said it’s low on the priority pole compared to other egregious crimes like murder and rape. A car thief has to be found guilty of seven thefts before facing a state prison sentence. If the law is to have bite, the change will have to come from the Legislature, he said.

County Executive Ron Sims endorsed Maleng’s new program. He said he knows about car theft all too well: His Jeep Scout was stolen three times in the nine years he has owned it.

“You don’t realize how much emotion” is involved in the car, Sims said, describing his feelings when his vehicle was stolen. “It’s the arrogance of the crime. It really makes you angry.”

The neighbors in Federal Way echoed many of those comments.

“It’s a sick feeling,” White said.

He swung by his house to grab some paperwork and left the key in the ignition of his car. Police say that is one of the best ways for car thieves to make off with a person’s wheels. Tacoma Police lobbied that city’s council last year to pass an ordinance making it a crime to leave a car unattended while running.

White walked out of his house 15 minutes after he arrived to see his car gone. He assumed it was stolen and called Federal Way Police, who responded promptly and took a report. Later, they returned for a bicycle found between White’s yard and his neighbor’s.

Later in the day, White was in his garage and saw a car similar to his go by. He walked into the street, read the license plates and yelled again.

“I screamed,’That’s my car, that’s my car,” White said. The driver slowed, stopped and then took off.

“I know he saw me,” White said. He theorizes the thief either came back for his bike or to break into the house, using the garage door opener or the keys in the car.

The next morning, Laky walked out to get his newspaper and found his GMC truck missing. At first, he thought it was parked elsewhere and he had forgotten. But a neighbor heard the truck start at about 4 a.m. and her son noticed it wasn’t around at 6 a.m. when he left for work.

Laky left the next day on vacation. Dana Campbell, another neighbor, monitored his voice mail in case the police called.

That Friday, as he pulled out of a grocery store parking lot on 49th Avenue Northeast, White saw a car that looked like his go by. He pulled behind it and recognized the license plates. He called 9-1-1 to tell them he was tailing his car. White honked at the driver, who finally stopped and got out. White was out of his rental car and still on the phone when the man asked if the Hyundai belonged to him. After he confirmed it was his car, White said the man protested and claimed he had purchased the car that morning. But he backed up as White pressed him, then walked away and finally bolted into a nearby neighborhood. The police arrived just after that, but weren’t able to catch the man.

White’s car was in good shape overall, but all of his belongings were gone except a few tapes and the owner’s manual. Police searched the car and found drug paraphernalia hidden underneath the steering column along with garbage, a tackle box and a backpack.

A fews days after White got his car back, a business on Marine View Drive left a message for Laky, asking if he had permission to park his truck on their property. When Campbell, the neighbor watching his house, called back, the man at the business asked if the truck was stolen. She said it was and called police.

Here is where the neighbors get frustrated. Campbell said she was told by Federal Way Police that since the truck was in Fife, that city’s police department needed to handle the recovery. Fife Police told Campbell the truck was in Tacoma Police Department’s jurisdiction. When the third agency balked at the truck being in their area and said she needed to talk to Fife, Campbell put her foot down.

A Tacoma Police officer came to the scene. However, Tacoma officers wouldn’t not check the truck for fingerprints despite it looking like someone used it to remodel a house. There was old carpet and padding in the bed, shelving from a refrigerator and dirt all over the inside of the cab. The thieves had used a screwdriver and ball peen hammer to break the lock on the ignition. Federal Way Police also wouldn’t check it because the truck was found outside of the city limits, the neighbors said.

They don’t blame the officers, the neighbors said, but the systems they work in for not having enough funding to look for evidence and work together.

Laky estimated there was about $3,000 in damage to the truck, along with missing tools, a bedliner, spare tire, trailer hitch, bug guards and jack. The license plates are also missing.

Last Tuesday, Karen Noel’s son, Justin, walked out before 7 a.m. to drive to his new job, only to discover his newer Acura wasn’t in the driveway. He had parked it the night before about 11 p.m. after making a trip to the store.

He went to work while his mother filed the report. Karen Noel, Campbell and White went to the police station to find out what investigators were doing. They also visited the shed where Laky’s truck was dumped. Shortly after coming, Noel’s phone rang. It was the Pierce County Sheriff Department. They had found her son’s car near Enumclaw. A rear tire was missing and they tried to take the stereo. The car was checked for fingerprints and other evidence before it was taken to Auburn to get repaired.

The neighbors, who were close before the thefts, are considering starting a block watch. Police officials contacted them about how to set one up. Campbell is hopeful the new unit in Maleng’s office will deter thieves from striking again.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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