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Car thieves shift into high gear in Albuquerque

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

When police recovered Autumn Howard’s stolen Lincoln Town Car in December, it was trashed.

The engine was ruined, the windows wouldn’t roll up and the rims were spray-painted. It was littered with dirty diapers, syringes and spoons, and made a loud clunking noise when she drove it more than 30 mph.

Her insurance company declared the car – the first Howard had owned outright – a total loss and towed it away. She hasn’t replaced it yet, borrowing her husband’s car when necessary.a00_jd_24jul_ABQ_auto-theft_16

Howard is far from alone. She is one of more than 5,000 people whose cars were stolen in Albuquerque in 2015, a year in which car thefts spiked here.

In fact, Albuquerque had the second-highest car theft rate in the nation last year – second only to Modesto, east of San Francisco in California’s Central Valley – according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Statistics released by the Albuquerque Police Department show that auto theft in 2015 was the highest it has been since 2006, and increased 45 percent from the previous year’s total of 3,558.

The jump in the unincorporated part of Bernalillo County was even larger. According to crime numbers submitted to the FBI and provided by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, the number of auto thefts more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, from 230 to 477.

Albuquerque police spokesman Tanner Tixier was unable to say how many stolen vehicles APD recovered because the detective who tracks those numbers was out of the office and unavailable.

Bernalillo County, meanwhile, said that it recovered more vehicles than were reported stolen in 2015. People often abandon stolen vehicles on the far West Mesa in Bernalillo County, according to authorities.

The rise in car thefts is a problem that local law enforcement officials know they need to tackle.

“We recognize it. We’re not sticking our head in the sand hoping it goes away,” Tixier said.

But he said that APD, a department plagued by manpower problems in recent years, has only four detectives dedicated to solving auto thefts.

That’s one detective for every 1,294 vehicle thefts in the city in 2015.

Detectives have 20 to 30 cases running at a time, Tixier said. They focus on homes or areas known for auto theft, help field officers who have spotted stolen vehicles and follow up on thefts where the leads are solid, such as DNA evidence left behind.

“Those four guys come in, and they don’t sit in their offices,” Tixier said. “They get in their trucks, and they go to work. They’re doing the best they can with the small number of officers we have.”

Drug addicts

Autumn Howard’s experience with auto theft was fairly typical in that police found her car, but only after it had been trashed. Authorities say car thieves typically make spur-of-the-moment decisions to steal cars and are often motivated by their drug habits.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” said Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Andi Taylor. “Auto crime goes hand in hand with drug addiction.”

She said cars are often stolen by addicts to sell or trade for a quick fix, or they are used to commit another crime.

The vehicles frequently turn up a day or two later, abandoned on the side of the road or in a parking lot. And damage to the stolen car can be extensive – if they’re not burned or shot up, they often have mechanical problems, such as ignition damage, or are vandalized and spray-painted.

Taylor said that, when she was on patrol, she once found a stolen car covered in vomit.

“Those are the kids who joy-ride and go get drunk,” she said. “Who wants that car back? It was disgusting.”

Gone for good

Professional car thieves especially like Ford F-150s, F-250s and F-350s, according to authorities. Tixier said they also target Chevrolet trucks.

But the owners of these vehicles probably won’t see them again, Tixier said. That’s because they’re taken to Mexico for resale instead of being used for joy-riding or other property crimes in Albuquerque.

Taylor said that, a few years ago, Ford trucks were popular with Mexican cartels, because they can handle rugged terrain and have dead space easily converted into compartments for drug trafficking.

People working in chop shops can help outfit those stolen vehicles with secret compartments. Chop shops are more common in Bernalillo County than in the city, and Taylor said that deputies have busted eight of them this year.

Lack of treatment

Taylor said she believes that one of the reasons auto theft has spiked is the lack of enough treatment centers and resources for drug addicts, who are committing most property crimes.

“There is a huge problem with drug addiction here without resources to treat the addicts,” she said. “As long as you have addicts out in the street, you’re going to have auto theft. And until we have a place where we can send those addicts so they can actually get help and get into recovery, we’re going to continue to see property crime.”

Tixier agreed and said that too many property crime offenders are released on low bail.

“Mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment is lacking horribly in this state, and then people are expecting police and the Sheriff’s Office to deal with it,” he said.

But until something changes, BCSO and APD are stuck with trying to figure out how to help fix the issue and drive auto theft down.

Taylor said deputies are stepping up patrols during night and morning hours when car thefts often occur. The department also hopes to put more resources toward its bait car program, she said.

Bait cars are department-owned cars with special GPS trackers that are left in city parking lots and on streets popular with car thieves.

Tixier said Albuquerque police officers are reaching out to the community through free vehicle identification number etchings, and putting up signs that remind people to lock their cars and not leave their keys inside.

Grass-roots help

Residents have also turned to one another for help.

A Facebook page called ABQ Alert is a forum for people who have either lost their vehicles to theft or seen suspicious vehicles they think may have been stolen and abandoned.

“It’s almost been a year, but still hopeful,” one woman posted Thursday, attaching pictures of her Dodge Ram truck stolen in August 2015.

Alyx Hodges learned of the Facebook page after her and her husband’s Dodge Durango was stolen from in front of their Nob Hill home earlier this month.

They were in the process of moving from Albuquerque to Seattle, where, Hodges said, she doesn’t believe there is as much crime.

“It’s always felt like Albuquerque has a really high crime rate for the amount of people who are here. You always feel vulnerable in Albuquerque,” she said.

She said she’s ready to move on.

“We kind of felt like it was the universe kicking us out of New Mexico even more,” she said. “It made it a lot easier to be like, ‘OK, we need to get out of here.'”

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