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Lodi-Stockton area 3rd in nation in vehicle thefts

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Posted: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 10:00 pm

This week's report that the Lodi/Stockton area ranks third in the nation for vehicle theft probably came as no surprise to the 560 Lodi residents whose vehicles have been stolen since January.

It also wouldn't have surprised the 142 vehicle theft suspects arrested in city limits during the same time.

Lodi police officers have adopted a decidedly proactive approach when it comes to vehicle theft, Sgt. Dennis Cunningham said Wednesday.

"We're really targeting those vehicles that are being stolen -- Camrys, Saturns and Hondas," he said. "It's gotten to the point where, if I see a Saturn, I run the (license) plate."

Some of the officers who work the graveyard shift between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. are regularly checking license plates to see if the vehicles have been reported stolen, Capt. David Main said.

"You can go out there and drive around and do what the radio tells you or you can be proactive," he said.

However, despite the officers' best efforts the number of vehicles being stolen doesn't seem to be declining.

According to statistics provided by the FBI and compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Modesto tops the vehicle theft list, Phoenix/Mesa is second and the Lodi/Stockton area is third.

Locally, 1,194 vehicles were stolen per 100,000 people in the Stockton/Lodi area, according to the nonprofit insurance bureau. In other words, for every 84 people, one vehicle is swiped.

That rate differs remarkably from places like the Portsmouth/Rochester area of New Hampshire, which went from 308th in 2001 to 331st in 2003. There, only one vehicle is stolen for every 1,197 people.

And in State College, Pa., which has ranked 336th for the past three years, only one vehicle is stolen per 2,561 people.

The Lodi area's rise in auto thefts is not an anomaly in California. Sacramento, which includes statistics from throughout the county including Galt, rose from seventh to fifth.

Of 25 areas in California, all but two of them have moved up the nationwide rankings since 2001. Fresno moved down three places but remains sixth in the nation, and San Francisco remains steady at 37th place.

Why California is such a hotbed for vehicle theft isn't quite known, but Sgt. Chris Jacobson said almost every vehicle theft arrest he's made has been tied to methamphetamine use -- a drug that is prevalent in California.

Jacobson, who targets stolen vehicles, recently asked one arrestee why he stole the vehicle. The response: "We're just driving them."

Last summer, Jacobson regularly made trips to a motel where he knew frequent visitors used methamphetamine. He found five stolen vehicles, and made an arrest with each vehicle.

Some vehicles are stripped and sold for parts, Cunningham said, but others are merely used for a brief time until the thief gets from one place to another.

Catching car thieves is almost a kind of specialty, Main said.

"Officers feel their way through and develop their own specific talents," he said, mentioning that some are adept at handling accident investigations while others seem to regularly spot drunk drivers.

Sometimes luck comes into play, said Lt. Virgil Monroe. At night, for instance, many vehicle owners have gone home for the day so the vehicles on the road might raise suspicions a bit more.

"Every once in a while, at this time of the year, you see them driving around with the window down so you know it's probably been broken out," he said.

Some officers have a knack for recognizing stolen vehicles, and both Main and Monroe said Officer Nick Welton regularly makes such arrests. Specific arrest numbers for officers were not available Wednesday, and he was not available for comment.

Jacobson, who works graveyard with Welton, said he focuses on details and notices when a car doesn't seem to match a driver or area of town.

According to statistics provided by Main, Lodi officers arrested 98 vehicle theft suspects in 2002. That number more than doubled to 213 last year, and 142 have been arrested so far this year.

In the meantime, 418 vehicles were stolen in 2002, 541 were taken the next year and 560 have been stolen since January.

Additionally, vehicle theft is a growing trend across the country.

Vehicle thefts increased dramatically in 2001, when 1.2 million vehicles were stolen nationwide, an increase of more than 68,000 cars from the year before, according to the insurance crime bureau, which fights fraud and tries to lower consumer insurance rates. The number also increased in 2003 by an additional 13,825 vehicles taken nationwide.

Robert M. Bryant, CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, estimated that the thefts cost consumers and insurers $8 billion.

The best way to combat vehicle theft is to increase security, Cunningham said.

"Have a good ignition system with an alarm system and an anti-theft device like a club. Then it will be too much trouble for them to steal your car," he said.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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