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SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Top 10 hot spots for car theft in Renton
Brad Solly was watching Avatar at The Landing with his two kids when a man stole his Ford Excursion from the parking garage in broad daylight.
Before the movie finished, the suspect had taken his GPS and dumped the truck in a nearby Target parking lot, but it was weeks before police found it.
The Landing is one of 10 car-theft hot spots revealed in a Renton Reporter investigation, which discovered where the most cars were stolen in 2009 and what attracted the thieves.
Renton has seen a significant increase of car thefts in several high-traffic areas this year.
The Excursion, a model no longer produced, once belonged to his father. When Solly saw it missing, he thought his brother might be playing a joke.
“Once I realized...it was kind of sad,” said Solly, a former Renton resident who moved to Issaquah. “I thought I was going to get a truck back that was destroyed.”
Most cars aren’t taken for their parts, but for a ride, said Renton Police Department Detective Bob Onishi. “Thieves aren’t necessarily looking at the intrinsic worth of your car.”
They tend to learn how to steal one type of car and then focus on areas more likely to have that model, he said.
“If you’re going to steal one thing, it’s going to be something you can find,” such as Honda Accords and Acuras, Onishi said.
Where vehicles are stolen is a matter of ease.
Thieves have higher odds finding specific models at apartment complexes and parking lots, than in neighborhoods with single-family houses.
How far they have to walk to find the right car is a deterrent, he said. “These guys aren’t real ambitious.”
The average car thief is a jobless drug user looking for a ride or something to trade for drugs, Onishi said. “It’s something they can steal and drive around to commit other crimes.”
Security footage from Target showed a young man park Solly’s Excursion and wait for friends to pick him up, Solly said.
Thieves often move cars to give themselves time to remove stereos or rummage through compartments, Onishi explained.
Occasionally, cars are also stolen to be used as getaway vehicles for burglaries, he said.
Mary Ryan, a Renton landlord, was loading her Ford Sport Trak with paint cans when it was snatched from her downtown house.
“It was just a nightmare,” she said.
The theft was easy. She had left her keys in the car, the first bad habit Detective Onishi warns against.
“Do not leave your car running in your driveway,” he added.
On a cold morning the exhaust creates a visible cloud above the car, he said. “Dopers call those things steamers.”
Renton’s mayor, Denis Law, helped track down a car thief who stole one steamer, a green Astro minivan, in November 2009, Onishi said.
While Law was driving to work, he saw the thief cause a crash in the Highlands and flee the scene. Law followed the suspect until police caught up. The suspect was arrested before police finished the initial theft report.
Securing a car can also mean removing temptations.
Don’t leave anything in your car you don’t mind losing, Onishi said.
Even a suction cup ring from a GPS holder is enough to attract a thief, he said. “You’re just asking for it.”
Ryan is so automobile dependent she keeps a second car insured. Her Ford was filled with about $10,000 in tools and golf equipment, which she uses regularly.
When police recovered the Ford, the only thing left was a cheap set of golf balls.
It was as if the thief was saying, ‘Here, try golfing without your clubs,’ she said. “It was kind of vindictive.”
Losing her keys, which accessed more than just her car, cost her about $2,000 in locksmith fees, she said. “It was a money issue. I didn’t feel violated or anything.”
Solly agreed. “Safe and getting something stolen are two different things.”
While criminals determined enough can steal any car, alarms and steering-wheel locks are a deterrent to the average thief, Onishi said.
Cheaper Hondas with thousands of dollars in modifications are some of the few cars targeted for chop-shop operations. Those owners often take special precautions.
One man, who installed car alarms for work, was caught trying to steal a modified Acura in 2002, Onishi said. “The problem was the victim knew this thing was a target.”
When the car wouldn’t start, the thief tried to compression start the engine by rolling the car down a hill, but the owner had yanked the fuse that starts the ignition, he said.
Police caught up to the suspect, pretty easily, he said. “At least he was employed.”
Finding the hot spots
The biggest hot spot for car thefts in Renton is in the Cascade neighborhood.
The largest concentration, about 26 reports in 2009, centered on the Mission Ridge Apartments, south of the Cascade Shopping Center and roughly off of Southeast Petrovitsky Road.
“In general that is a high-crime area,” Detective Onishi said.
The area was accustomed to the limited resources of the King County Sheriff’s office until it annexed to Renton in 2008.
Initially, the neighborhood appeared quiet, but once people realized Renton police are more responsive, calls for help skyrocketed, he said.
The Rainier and Grady corridor make the No. 2 spot with 20 thefts in 2009.
The area’s large-box store parking lots, hotels and park and rides tend to attract thieves, Onishi said. “It’s sort of one-stop shopping.”
Renton’s largest shopping center, The Landing, ranked ninth place with about 11 thefts.
Homes surrounding the Windsor Hills Park, off of Edmonds Avenue Northeast, made the No. 3 hot spot with about 20 cars stolen in 2009.
Like Cascade, this area is also about demographics. The neighborhood has a lot of thieves who grew up in the area, Onishi said. “It’s kind of their comfort zone.”
The Renton Reporter identified the top 10 car theft hot spots in 2009 by first pinpointing each of the 484 thefts for 2009 on a map.
A visual examination of the map revealed hot spots.
The least likely place to have a car stolen in 2009 was Kennydale, with only 5 car thefts for the entire neighborhood.
Thefts on the rise in 2010
Overall Renton has seen an increase in car thefts this year, about 30 more thefts as compared to the end of June last year.
However, there has been a significant increase of theft in high traffic areas, such as The Landing and the Grady and Rainier corridor.
The corridor has so far doubled with 20 thefts through June. The Landing almost tripled last year’s rate with 15 thefts so far.
As The Landing storefronts are gradually filling, traffic and the area’s visibility are on the rise.
“We’ve seen a number of those (thefts) out of The Landing’s parking garage,” Onishi said.
Solly’s Excursion was stolen from The Landing parking garage.
It’s not all bad news.
The No. 3 theft spot in 2009, the Windsor Hills Park neighborhood, dropped to only four thefts so far this year. It totaled 20 last year.
It’s likely the thieves were either jailed or found a new place to live, Onishi said.
As a whole, 2009 had a relatively low number of thefts. Renton’s highest theft rate was in 2006, with 954 thefts, he said.
Legislation was passed to increase jail time for regular offenders in 2007, he said.
“(The law) put a lot of chronic thieves out of circulation for much longer,” Onishi said.
About 10 percent of the thieves cause about 90 percent of the problem, he said.
As prosecutors are now working more closely with local police and crime analysts, the numbers have dropped substantially in all of King County.
“These guys don’t stop at the city limits, so by coordinating we can address the fact that these guys are regional problems,” he said.