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Stolen cars fuel an Albuquerque crime wave

Albuquerque police record the aftermath of a serious car accident involving a stolen car near Bridge and Broadway SE. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Planning to rob a restaurant? Use a stolen car.

Stealing mail? Use a stolen car.

Helping a friend steal a car? Use a stolen car to get there.

Deputy Chief Harold Medina

In a city that leads the nation in auto theft, it has become standard procedure for crooks to use stolen cars while committing a host of other crimes, ranging from armed robberies to drive-by gang shootings.

Traditionally, police viewed auto theft as a stand-alone, nonviolent crime, often connected to the need for money to buy drugs.

That’s no longer true in Albuquerque, where crime rates have skyrocketed across the board.

“Stolen cars have become the mode of transportation for criminals committing a wide variety of crimes,” Albuquerque Police Deputy Chief Harold Medina said in an interview.

The city has seen more than a three-fold increase in auto theft since 2013, along with climbing rates of armed robbery, larceny and burglary.

In 2013, the city recorded 2,743 auto thefts. Last year, that number was 7,684, down slightly from 2016 when 7,710 vehicles were stolen.

In 2016, using a broader population area, the National Insurance Crime Bureau ranked the greater Albuquerque area as having the highest per-capita rate of auto thefts in the country, with 1,114 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people.

Pueblo, Colorado, and three California cities trailed Albuquerque with auto-theft rates of less than 900 thefts per 100,000 people.

Using the FBI statistics, Austin, for example, has about twice Albuquerque’s population but far fewer auto thefts.

Given our numbers, it came as no surprise to police that suspected burglars like Christopher Heh or Avery Dollbrown would get caught repeatedly driving stolen cars they claimed were loaned to them by a “friend” whose name they couldn’t recall.

Or that the sergeant of arms of the New Mexico chapter of the Bandido Motorcycle Club, Thomas Giles, would sell heroin and methamphetamine along with stolen cars and motorcycles.

Or that Robert Billie, who later confessed to committing 71 armed robberies, was arrested in a stolen SUV.

All four men pleaded guilty to various charges. Heh is in state prison. Billie is in federal prison, and Dollbrown and Giles are awaiting sentencing.

“By focusing on auto theft, we believe, we can have an impact on crime across all categories,” Medina said.

A new approach

APD and Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez are rethinking how they approach auto theft.

Torrez said in an interview that his office has moved away from lumping auto thefts into one bucket of crimes.

“We’re more interested in the individual who is committing a lot of crimes,” Torrez said. “We want to take a chunk out of the people who are prolific at committing felonies.”

Heh and Dollbrown, for instance, made the DA’s Office’s list of the “Top 300” violent or repeat offenders who get special attention from prosecutors. There are actually 320 people on the list now, and they account for 1,600 separate felony charges.

Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 20, almost one-third of the felony criminal cases filed by the DA’s Office included auto theft charges – 62 cases – and 22 of those involved people with at least four pending felony cases.

“Violent offenders go to the top of the priority list – murder, sex crimes, child abuse,” Torrez said. “But repeat offenders, no matter the type of crime, are being put on that list.”

Auto theft is a fairly simple case for prosecutors and police to put together. It requires prosecutors to assemble documents, such as a certified copy of the car title and a statement from the owner that the person arrested didn’t have permission to drive the vehicle.

But it’s also a fourth-degree felony with a light penalty – up to 18 months. By contrast, residential burglary is a third-degree felony with the possibility of a three-year sentence.

The key, Torrez said, is to hit repeat offenders with habitual offender charges that can lengthen that 18-month sentence by years, depending on the number of the defendant’s prior convictions.

As Torrez’s staff continues to clear out a backlog of cases left by his predecessor, he said he hopes to begin to focus on individuals or groups that “drive” specific types of crime, such as gun crimes and auto theft.

But, right now, he said the office is “saturated with repeat offenders,” making it difficult to do real intelligence on the social networks between criminals.

Torrez said increased funding approved for his office during the recent legislative session will help.

Medina said the National Insurance Crime Bureau is helping APD identify groups or individuals who are moving stolen vehicles out of state.

“It is easy to say that a lot of stolen vehicles are going south into Mexico,” Medina said. “In 2010 and 2011, we worked with U.S. Customs and federal agencies on the border, and we never had massive numbers moving south.”

“There is no one reason cars are being stolen,” he said.

Special units

Over the past few months APD has used tactical units, such as SWAT and K-9 patrols, to saturate areas of the city specifically to look for stolen cars.

That means running lots of license plates through computer databases and making traffic stops.

“We get out into an area and use specialized units as a force multiplier,” Medina said.

They try to avoid getting involved in high-speed chases by calling in an air unit to track a suspected stolen vehicle until it stops in an area police officers can control.

“We have a responsibility to keep the public safe,” Medina said.

The most high-profile situation, of the type police are trying to avoid, occurred in 2017, when a stolen work van fleeing from police crashed into a car in the Foothills neighborhood.

Elexus Groves, a 23-year-old out on supervised release from an auto theft case in Sandoval County, was driving.

Police reported that Paul Garcia, 24, was a passenger in the van when it crashed into a car driven by a woman taking her two children to school. The 14-year-old daughter, Shaylee Boling, died on the scene, and the woman, Shaunna Arredondo-Boling, 39, died two weeks later in a hospital.

Groves and Garcia have both been charged with two counts of felony murder, among other charges, including auto theft for the stolen van.

Types of thieves

The level of sophistication in auto theft ranges from the use of a long-handled screwdriver to break an ignition lock to digital readers that can steal and transfer information from an owner’s key fob to a blank key fob.

Some car thieves are so drug addled they pass out with the car running at a stop sign, but others can change out the dashboard vehicle identification number in a few minutes, essentially disguising the vehicle from a cursory police inspection.

Trying to sort out the drug addled from the professionals can be difficult.

And identifying “chop shops” that can break up a stolen car to sell its parts on the internet can take detectives a month or more of surveillance.

A car that is “parted out” can bring in far more than the vehicle is worth.

Medina said technology is also a factor.

“Because of the internet and other technical advances, people can identify stolen cars more rapidly, so criminals realize they can’t hold on to stolen cars as long as they did in the past,” he said.

Also, automobile manufacturers have made advances in protecting vehicles from theft. Some cars can be turned off remotely. Others can be tracked by cellphone apps.

Medina said thieves concentrate on vehicles they know how to steal.

“There are people who know how to steal Ford F-150s from specific model years,” he said. “Right now, Hyundai model cars appear to be targeted for theft.”

Two new bills

Help may be on the way for law enforcement agencies in the Albuquerque area when it comes to auto theft.

Gov. Susana Martinez signed two bills – one requiring auto dismantlers to check a state database to determine if a car is stolen before buying it and a second bill forming an Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

The dismantlers bill, sponsored by Reps. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, and Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Howie C. Morales, D-Silver City, will take effect in January 2019.

It requires the state Motor Vehicle Division to establish a database accessible to auto recyclers to report all vehicle purchases and check to see if the cars they buy have been reported stolen.

If the car has been reported stolen, the recycling company must report it to local law enforcement.

The Automobile Theft Prevention Authority bill, sponsored by Rep. William “Bill” R. Rehm, R-Albuquerque, is modeled on similar agencies in Arizona, Colorado and Texas.

The superintendent of insurance is charged with appointing a board of insurance company and law enforcement representatives to provide grants to local law enforcement agency efforts to combat auto theft.

No money was allocated in the bill, but other states have imposed a nominal fee of $1 or more on car title transfers or auto sales to provide money for the law enforcement grants.

Albuquerque police officers recover a stolen truck and trailer last August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal )

Keep your car safe

Here are some tips from the Albuquerque Police Department to prevent your car from being stolen.

  •  Do not leave your car running while it is unattended.
  •  Lock your car and take your keys with you even when parked in your driveway.
  •  Do not hide a spare key on the vehicle.
  •  Place valuables out of sight.
  • Roll up the windows completely.
  •  If you have a garage, use it. Vehicles are least safe parked at the curb, more safe in the driveway and most safe in the garage.
  •  Lock your garage door.
  •  Do not leave the car title in the vehicle. Doing so makes it easy for the thief to sell the car.

You can visit the city of Albuquerque’s website for more crime prevention tips at

— Michael Gallagher