“The three most popular cars stolen are Hondas, Toyotas and Saturns,” said Tracy Police Department Detective Robert Brandi. “U.S.-wide, Hondas are always No. 1, and Hondas in Tracy right now are No. 1.”
According to a Forbes magazine report released June 19, Stockton — the closest city listed to Tracy — was ranked seventh in the country in 2011 for grand theft auto, with 3,532 thefts reported.
Brandi, who specializes in vehicle theft investigations for the Tracy police, said the ongoing problem in that city is starting to trickle into neighboring cities, including Tracy, Manteca and Lodi.
Brandi said Tracy averages 13 to 20 stolen cars per month. But recently, police are seeing 28 to 31 per month, he said.
“They (thieves) are looking for the easiest target to get from point A to point B,” Brandi said.
Hondas from the late 1980s and early 1990s have less sophisticated security systems than today’s models, making them easier for thieves looking to make a quick boost, he said.
Caught in the act
An arrest of one theft suspect typifies how some car thieves operate.
On Sunday, July 29, Tracy police were alerted to a woman trying to open car doors in the Big Lots parking lot off Tracy Boulevard.
Cops chased an allegedly stolen Honda driven by the suspect, later identified as 25-year-old Whitney Choate, down Tracy Boulevard. The pursuit ended when Choate crashed into a Chevrolet Suburban at the intersection of Tracy Boulevard and Valpico Road, according to police reports.
The man driving the Suburban was not seriously injured, according to a relative.
Choate was arrested and charged with vehicle theft, DUI with injury, evading police with wanton disregard, receiving stolen property, possession of burglary tools and possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia. As of Thursday, Aug. 2, she was in San Joaquin County Jail in French Camp on $1.2 million bail.
Brandi said Choate was not on the local police department’s radar as a known car thief but said she could be a suspect in multiple thefts in Tracy and Manteca.
Police are not saying why Choate allegedly took the Honda Civic on Sunday, but Brandi said the majority of the stolen vehicles taken in Tracy are used for transportation, not parts. He said 90 percent of Tracy’s recovered stolen vehicles are found intact.
Several vehicles reported stolen in Tracy were recently found in rural areas, Brandi said, and police suspect they were taken and used by migrant workers.
More cars disappear this year
According to Tracy police statistics, 147 vehicles were stolen from January to July, and 35 of them were Hondas, according to Janice Cree, Tracy police crime analyst.
She said it’s too hard to predict where the total will be by the end of the year, because many factors come into play.
But the numbers so far appear to be a significant increase from 2011, when Tracy police recorded reports of 203 stolen vehicles all year, including 45 Hondas.
“It’s been going on the last three months, and we began to notice it in May,” Cree said.
In January, 21 vehicle thefts were reported to Tracy police, in addition to 12 in February, 13 in March and 10 in April.
The number of reports then jumped to 26 in May, 27 in June and 38 in July.
One reason for the increase in vehicle thefts in San Joaquin County could be that the punishments for car thieves do little to discourage criminals, according to Michael Mulvihill, supervisor of the felony trial unit for the county prosecutor’s office.
“Some feel there is no teeth (to the law), no major deterrent,” he said. “You can say, ‘You do this again, we’re going to come after you,’ but it’s just not there.”
Convicted auto thieves can be sentenced to 16 months, two years or three years for incarceration, but many offenders end up being released sooner.
Assembly Bill 109 — passed in 2011 to reduce overcrowding in state prisons — resulted in a large number of nonviolent offenders serving their time in county jails instead of prisons, and overcrowding of the jails means some of them are sent home early, Mulvihill said.
Some offenders are given probation or home monitoring, and others have their time reduced for good behavior.
“The real problem with county (jail) is that they’re not equipped for long-term prisoners,” Mulvihill said. “The problem is when they should get six years and serve three and (instead) get out in a month or two.”
Mulvihill likened deterring a criminal to raising a child. He said each small transgression must be disciplined, or those small things will turn into bigger problems. He said criminals who commit crimes such as grant theft auto have been known to commit more violent crimes later.
“Let them get away for a slap on the wrist for stealing a car … some will rehabilitate, and others will try to see what they can get away with next,” he said.
Based on the ramifications of AB109, Mulvihill said he hoped to see an amendment to the law someday.
Jail overcrowding still problematic
San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Les Garcia said the sheriff’s office is seeing individuals with lengthy sentences sent to the county jail even as budget cuts require reducing the jail’s maximum of 1,411 beds per day to 1,255.
The daily number of inmates allowed in the jail, called a “court cap,” is determined by a superior court judge.
“Our overcrowding issue and the court cap is something we constantly face on a daily basis,” Garcia said. “If we were able to house more inmates, we believe it would have an impact on the crime rate throughout the county. Not going to do away with repeat offenders – larger jail is what we need in San Joaquin County. Right now, we’re keeping the worst of the worst.”
Garcia said Sheriff Steve Moore has secured about $80 million to build a bigger jail, but county officials have yet to find a way to pay for its operating costs, about $40 million a year.
Tracy crimes tracked online
According to Tracy police, statistics show that the most stolen vehicles are taken from the West Valley Mall area off Naglee Road and from an area in northern Tracy bounded by Tracy Boulevard, MacArthur Drive, 11th Street and Interstate 205.
Residents can track reports of car thefts and other crimes from their home computers using a website called CrimeMapping.com. The site shows specific crimes, such as vehicle thefts, homicide, burglary, vandalism and assaults, within two miles of a specific address during a single day or a six-month period.
The tool, developed by The Omega Group, helps law enforcement agencies inform people about recent criminal activity in their neighborhoods, Cree said.
“It’s all based off of our (police) data,” Cree said. “If you want information about a crime in your area directly from the police department, … it keeps you informed.”
Theft can be prevented
One way vehicle owners can try to keep from becoming victims is to give car thieves a reason to go elsewhere, Brandi said.
He said vehicle owners should install a visual deterrent, not just a typical audio car alarm.
One device known to deter vehicle thieves, Brandi said, is a steering wheel lock. Although putting on and taking off such devices takes a few seconds for the driver, they may encourage thieves to look for a more vulnerable target.
Cree said other solutions include parking in well-lit areas, keeping cars inside garages overnight and installing a GPS tracking devices. GPS won’t stop a crime, she noted, but it helps police recover a vehicle more quickly if it’s stolen.
• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 831-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.