Of all the vehicles parked at the Grape Bowl last week for Lodi High School's graduation, only one was stolen. What the thieves -- and the owners -- didn't know was that the Chevy Blazer was equipped with a tracking system to notify police of its location.
Before long, Lodi Police officers tracked down the vehicle, surrounded it and arrested two Lodi residents without incident.
Robert Lopez, of Stockton, bought the used Blazer at auction more than two years ago. He later disabled the alarm system because it gave him troubles, Lopez said Tuesday. The hidden LoJack system, though, remained in place.
LoJack is used in 25 countries and has led to somewhere between 75,000 and 80,000 vehicle recoveries in the U.S. alone, said Massachusetts-based spokesman Paul McMahon.
The system uses radio frequencies to communicate directly with electronic screens that are installed free of charge in police cars. Since Lodi Police cars got the system about five years ago, about a dozen stolen cars have been recovered with the device, said Lt. Bill Barry.
In Lopez's case, he parked at Washington and Lockeford streets shortly before the 7 p.m. graduation. He remembers going back to his car for his cell phone, then relocking the vehicle.
"I got my phone, closed the door and locked it, and I think I must have dropped my key," he said.
After the graduation, Lopez discovered that his keys were gone, and then he learned that his car had vanished. Police were called at 9:20 p.m., and they soon entered the Vehicle Identification Number into a national crime database -- something police do as soon as a car is stolen.
Less than two hours later, Officer Nick Welton got in his patrol car, where the LoJack system was giving an alert. Directional arrows pointed in the direction of the stolen vehicle, and Welton began following them, according to police reports.
In the meantime, dispatchers called the Lopez home to confirm that they had LoJack installed in the vehicle. Lopez's wife first thought they were asking about a type of tool, Barry said.
Police officers got into position and surrounded the vehicle, then stopped it at Turner Road and Ham Lane. Amber Renee Phillips, 18, and Austin Wilburly Reid, 22, were both arrested at gunpoint, according to police. They were scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday, according to police, but they were not listed on Tuesday's court calendar.
One advantage to LoJack, Barry said, is that police can find the car, then have the time to surround it so there's a much smaller chance of getting into a high-speed pursuit.
If Lopez had the vehicle for more than two years and never knew it had LoJack, odds are high that thieves wouldn't know, either, McMahon said.
The basic system costs $695 to be installed in a vehicle. For an extra $300, vehicle owners can get an enhanced version that comes with a keychain remote, McMahon said. If the vehicle is moved without the remote, LoJack will notify the owner by e-mail, text message or telephone.
Another system, OnStar, also notifies police of a vehicle's location, and it allows vehicle owners to talk to an operator about an emergency. The General Motors-owned device is similar to a wireless telephone with a monthly rate, and also offers options such as driving directions. The system is more obvious, and professional car thieves would be more likely to disable the system.
The LoJack device, which is about the size of a card deck, is hidden in one of more than 20 places in the vehicle. It lies dormant until the vehicle's identification number is recorded as stolen.
"It's an option we'd like to see more people buy with their vehicles," Barry said. "As soon as we enter that VIN, within a few minutes it sends a signal."
Car theft is a nationwide problem, but the Lodi/Stockton area generally has one of the highest rates in the country.
This month alone, 45 vehicles were stolen in city limits, according to crime statistics compiled by Crime Prevention Officer Andrea Patterson. The number is up from last May, when 40 cars were stolen. In April, though, the number dropped from 50 in 2004 to 43 this year. Those statistics exclude vehicles that were part of embezzlement investigations.
In the latest case, Lopez was glad to get his vehicle back, though he wished he'd known sooner about LoJack: Many insurance companies offer discounts to owners who have the system.
And the day his car was taken, Lopez happened to have tools in the vehicle because he was going to make some repairs at his daughter's home. The tools, which have not been recovered, were valued at more than $2,200, according to police, and some of them were antiques from Lopez's own father.
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at firstname.lastname@example.org.