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Car thefts increased by 33 percent since last year

By Mary Spicuzza Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 28, 2001

The Toyota Camry cruising past their squad car didn’t match the color of the stolen Camry Emeryville police were looking for, but Detective Alan Johnson said officers quickly noticed something suspicious about its driver. The young man was so small, they could barely see his eyes peering over the dashboard. 

“He was looking over the steering wheel,” Detective Johnson, Emeryville’s theft investigator, said. “We pulled him over, and it turned out he was about 14 years old. He had his little brother with him.” 

Johnson said the boy they caught in the stolen Camry last month was one of many teen joy riders who cruise East Bay streets in stolen cars.  

Last Friday evening, Johnson patrolled the crowded rows of Emeryville’s Public Market parking lot, giving a quick wave to a security officer pedaling past on a bike. Johnson said guards and increased police presence has helped discourage thieves, who in early summer were stealing two to three cars a night from the massive lot near Shellmound Street every weekend.  

“Here somebody can take their time and pick out the car they really want,” Johnson said. “It’s the amount of cars available.” 

Most of Emeryville’s stolen cars disappear from the sprawling parking lots surrounding the large shopping areas and movie theater located in what officers call District 3, police reports show.  


Berkeley car thefts up 

These lots provide a glimpse into a larger Bay Area car theft problem. In Berkeley, for example, car thefts have increased by 33 percent since last year. Vehicle thefts throughout Alameda County have also risen dramatically in recent months, with Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force (ACRATT) statistics showing a more than 16 percent increase in thefts since last year. Task force investigators said people stole nearly 5,572 vehicles in the county by the end of this August, an average of nearly 700 a month. And California Highway Patrol statistics from 2000 and 2001 show thieves statewide now favor the Toyota Camry.  

Sergeant Len Silva of ACRATT said his group brings together officers from CHP and local police agencies to create regional methods for preventing theft and recovering stolen cars. Silva said ACRATT was formed in 1995, after state agencies realized the rise in thefts “was becoming epidemic.”  

Silva said that car thefts have increased in the county, but people need to understand that periodic increases, or “spikes,” in theft are typical. 

“As bad off as we are, we’re not as bad as some other places,” Silva said, mentioning Fresno as a theft hotspot. National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics show Fresno is one of the top 10 cities for vehicle theft in the country. 

While Berkeley isn’t nearly as bad as Fresno in terms of car theft, Detective Jim Farr said he noticed a sharp rise in theft starting last year. 

“We’ve had an increase all over town,” Farr, theft investigator for the Berkeley Police Department, said. “You name the race, you name the sex, name the age. They’re all doing it. And it’s not just the same people getting arrested – it’s a new name everyday.” 

Farr said each month more than 100 cars are stolen in the city, compared to an average of 60 to 80 a month last year. He said he recently bought a club, or steering wheel lock, for his car. Compared to Berkeley’s 33 percent increase, CHP statistics show California thefts have risen less than 10 percent. 

Toyotas are the preferred car to steal 

On Tuesday, Farr read a list of more than two dozen cars stolen in Berkeley during the last week. About half of them were Toyota models. Farr, a 33-year veteran officer, said he helped bust groups of car thieves in the mid-90s that would cruise BART parking lots with filed-down Toyota keys.  

“Here comes this Toyota with five kids driving around the lot,” Farr said. “Four of the five got out, and they were all using filed keys to get Toyotas.” 

In Emeryville, where 17 of the 29 cars stolen during July were Camrys, Detective Johnson said many thieves don’t bother with special tools. 

“In the older model Camrys the ignition is really weak,” he said, mentioning late ’80s and early ’90s models. “Any key or scissors can turn over the ignition.”  

Johnson said newer Camrys are more secure. 

The Toyota Camry was followed by Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Toyota pick-up trucks as the top cars stolen in the state during 2000, CHP spokesperson Anne DaVigo said. She said last year 181,427 vehicles, an average of nearly 500 a day, were stolen in California.  

Emeryville resident Monica Lee didn’t know her car was so popular with thieves. But when Lee, a UC-Berkeley senior, left for her Monday morning class on Sept. 10, she said she found an empty parking space where she’d left her 1990 Camry seven hours earlier. Her apartment building has a security fence, but one of its gates was broken.  

Less than a week later, officers called to say her car had been found in El Cerrito.  

When asked about plans to prevent another theft, Lee said, “I’m going to sell it and buy a new car.” 

Most cars come back 

Like Lee, most theft victims get their cars back. CHP statistics show 88 percent of California’s stolen vehicles are found eventually, although sometimes with missing parts. Alameda task force members said thieves are often looking for a joy ride, quick transportation, or car parts like stereos and airbags. And police said illegal street racers, for example, often steal cars to replace airbags they used during a crash. Other thieves sell parts to mechanics running illegal garages known as “chop shops,” police said 

The Bay Area has also had problems with car smuggling. Officer DaVigo said last fall CHP busted two gangs smuggling stolen cars out of the Port of Oakland. An undercover CHP unit caught smugglers stacking 42 stolen cars inside carriers and loading them into ships. 

But local officers said most East Bay cars face a less exotic fate. Detective Farr said three of four stolen cars found in El Cerrito last Tuesday were from Berkeley. And when a thief steals a car from the Sather Gate parking garage just south of the UC Berkeley campus, officers often find at least one other stolen car dumped there, Farr said. Police reports show stolen cars also turn up at the waterfront area and Berkeley Marina, where many car thefts occur.  

Last April, Emeryville Officer Michael Allen found a stolen Dodge Neon with a baby crying in the backseat. The car, stolen from outside a Berkeley coffeeshop, had been abandoned near Adeline and 40th streets. Allen found the 8-month-old girl, still in her carseat, about an hour after the car was stolen. 

“It was fortunate we found her so quick,” Allen said. “The communication with other agencies really helped.” 

Officers suggested that car owners protect their vehicles using car alarms, steering wheel locks, and tracking devices. But they said they couldn’t make any promises.  

Detective Johnson said he had a club and parked inside a security fence, but it didn’t stop the person who stole his ’67 Chevy Malibu a few years ago. 

“All you can do is just make it harder to steal,” Johnson said. “And hopefully, they’ll go to the next car.”