News

Signal leads to stolen vehicles

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

For all of you who have had a vehicle stolen, check this out.

On Tuesday, members of the State Patrol's auto theft squad were in the Federal Way area and arrested two men on suspicion of stealing vehicles after tracking one vehicle's anti-theft transmitter.

The anti-theft device - called LoJack - sends out a radio signal that law enforcement can pick up on receivers in their cars, helicopters and airplanes. Powered by its own battery or the car's, the device is hidden in a vehicle and the signal can be traced even while the vehicles is hidden in cement parking structures or under brush.

Det. Sgt. John Anderson said Washington State Patrol (WSP) had been working with the owner after he reported it stolen. Several other agencies - including Federal Way Police - also picked up the signal. WSP asked for their cooperation and to hang back while the auto theft squad investigated.

Using their airplane, WSP was able to locate the vehicle at a residence along Milton Road about a mile from Wild Waves and Enchanted Village.

The stolen vehicle was a back hoe.

The construction equipment was most likely driven from a nearby construction site late Sunday night or early Monday morning over the Labor Day holiday weekend. The owner, according to Trooper Kelly Spangler, put the LoJack anti-theft device on all of his equipment after several were stolen in previous years.

A foreman called him Tuesday morning to say the back hoe blocking the access road was missing. The owner then contacted a WSP auto theft detective and a short time late the tractor's anti-theft device started silently sending out a signal.

The auto theft detectives in cars and the WSP air support spent more than an hour trying to locate the stolen heavy equipment.

Black tarpaulin hung from the perimeter of the side yard where the stolen vehicles were kept. Anderson and his team could see the boom and top of the back hoe from the two-lane road.

But the story gets better because the WSP auto theft squad hit a bullseye.

Anderson and his colleagues also recovered a 2005 Ford F250 pickup stolen from Everett, two motorcycles - one taken from Puyallup - and a disassembled 1999 Chevrolet Suburban at the residence.

Troopers estimated there was more than $100,000 in stolen vehicles on the property. Tuesday afternoon tow trucks were loading up the vehicles.

Anderson said two men - one renting a room at the house - were arrested and it appeared the thefts were funding a methamphetamine habit as related drug paraphernalia were found inside the house. The second man arrested is known to WSP for past car thefts and switching Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN). A few months ago he was chased by a state trooper while driving a stolen 1969 Dodge Charger and is awaiting sentencing on that case.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is aware of the case although it hasn't been filed, spokesman Dan Donohoe said.

When it does, the case will go through the prosecutor's new auto theft division set up last month. Norm Maleng, the county prosecutor, announced he was tasking assistant DAs in his office to focus on vehicle theft because it was one of the most frequent crimes in King County. The new division will review cases faster than before and file charges more quickly. Maleng is hoping state legislators will create stiffer penalties for vehicle thieves.

LoJack has been around for nearly 20 years, but has been available in Washington for the last two, according to Jeanne Bock, a spokeswoman for the company.

It mostly is in areas around the world where auto thefts are numerous, said Frank Zangar, a local representative for the company.

The devices are hidden in one of 20 spots in a car. The vehicle's battery powers the device, but it also has a backup battery in case the main battery is disconnected. Even the owner doesn't know where the device is hidden. LoJack does not release images of the device for security reasons.

Anderson said more people and businesses are having the devices installed. He was tracked another vehicle Wednesday after the LoJack transceiver started broadcasting, but the call was a false alarm.

After a car is stolen, the owner calls to report it stolen with the VIN. That is entered into the state's crime computer system. The LoJack device on the car is automatically activated by a signal sent from the company. It sends out a silent radio signal over several miles to law enforcement vehicles equipped with receivers. Officers get background information about the stolen vehicle and uses a directional arrow and audible tones from the receiver to locate the vehicle.

According to the company's website, 90 percent of the cars with the system are recovered and many within a few hours of being reported. Often the criminals are with the cars because they don't know the vehicle is armed with the device.

LoJack's suggested installation cost on a car or truck is $695.

The cost to install LoJack for construction equipment is $795 per unit, but discounts are given for volume purchases, Bock wrote in an e-mail.

Zangar said there aren't any other fees or charges for either transceiver and noted the heavy equipment version is beefier and built for harsher conditions. Exactly how many vehicles in Washington have LoJack isn't known because they come from other areas that had LoJack service.

Stolen heavy equipment is becoming more popular among two types of thieves, Anderson said.

Drug users, especially meth addicts, use the equipment for construction jobs. They move the equipment in and out of job sites during the night and hide it away from heavily traveled areas, he said.

They also use the equipment to keep themselves busy while riding the high. Anderson has seen meth addicts use the equipment to dig holes, tear things down and move dirt while high but for no other reason.

The other heavy equipment thief can't afford to buy their own stuff so steal it from someone else, he said. They also bring it to job sites at odd times and hide the equipment when not in use.

Eventually, both thieves ditch the tractors because its becomes too much of a liability, because too many contractors talk to each other and are looking for each other's stolen property, Anderson said.

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

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