Peninsula's vehicle theft cases are easy targets

Crime of opportunity

Driving back toward the central Kenai Peninsula on the night of Oct. 30, Laura Maciariello received an unsettling cell phone voicemail. She was returning from a fill-in shift in Seward — a coworker at FedEx had a family emergency.

Alaska State Troopers had called and left the message. They found Maciariello’s Toyota 4Runner abandoned near the Nikiski Escape Route.

“It’s completely shocking to get a call from the troopers while you’re out of town saying, ‘Hey, your car’s out here; it has no tires on it. Do you know anything about this?’” she said.

The car thieves removed Maciariello’s newly purchased tires and stripped the vehicle of its high-end stereo system.

Most car thefts on the Peninsula are crimes of opportunity, as residents often leave keys inside of their vehicles, authorities said. Reports of car thefts fall into two general categories: unfounded reports and legitimate thefts, which are evenly split.

The Kenai Police Department has received six reports of stolen vehicles this year. In 2011, the Police Department received eight reports. About half of those reports are truly stolen vehicles, said Kenai police Sgt. Ben Langham.

And the keys are accessible, he said.

Of Kenai’s vehicle thefts this year, two involved owners’ leaving keys inside their cars. People known to the victim stole the vehicle in one of those instances, and they knew where to find the keys.

In 2011, one vehicle was stolen from a bar, one from a restaurant — the keys rested in the vehicles’ ignitions.

Trooper Sgt. Robert Hunter agrees with this assessment.

“We don’t get the stereotypical punched ignitions, broken windows; or they hotwire the vehicles and drive off. We don’t get those,” Hunter said. “The keys are within easy grasp. They start the cars up and take off. Simple as that.”

Maciariello drove a company vehicle to Seward. She kept a spare keychain in her stolen vehicle that included keys to a post office box, her home and an extra car key. She replaced all those keys, changing out the locks.

Her 4Runner is usually parked at a fenced-in parking lot of Kenai FedEx. The day she traveled out of town, she was in a hurry, she said.

Having lived on the Peninsula for 20-plus years, Maciariello said she never imagined she would fall victim to vehicle theft.

“I never really thought it was a threat,” she said.

The thieves took the vehicle for a joy ride and then dumped it in a drainage ditch, taking everything of value out of the 4Runner, to the tune of about $2,000, which included tires, a camera and a new car battery.

This stolen-and-stripped method is a rare exception to the typical vehicle thefts of the Peninsula, Hunter said.

Abandoned vehicles are more common, however. Some vehicles the troopers recover are abandoned in parking lots or off-road trails, he said.

The troopers check on reports of abandoned vehicles but are not required to remove each and every vehicle. First, they establish if the vehicle was stolen. Second, they attempt to contact its owner if possible. Third, removal of the vehicle is instructed or recommended.

Vehicles are only impounded at the request of an owner or if it’s causing an immediate traffic hazard. Troopers become more proactive about removing the vehicles in the winter. The Alaska Department of Transportation requests the troopers’ help when snow removal is needed, Hunter said.

“It’s one of those issues that the borough would usually step in and remove unsightly vehicles from roadways, back roads, trails,” he said. “We just don’t have the resources to be moving every vehicle just because someone left it on the side of the road.”

On the one hand, the Peninsula experiences few legitimate car thefts. On the other hand, authorities receive many unfounded reports.

The scenarios are limitless: bar hoppers forget they rode home in cabs, exes take former lovers’ cars without permission, rental car companies worry their customers are not going to return.

The police department does not conduct much follow-up for the unfounded cases. Officers make a few calls, but most problems are resolved without law enforcement, Langham said.

In July 2011, lawmakers changed the language of the state’s vehicle theft statute so authorities can pursue misdemeanor charges in some personally-fueled instances. But the troopers have had a difficult time fitting scenarios within the law’s required elements, Hunter said.

Maciariello is asking the public to keep an eye out for her specialized plates, which read “RYDNKD.” She’s also keeping an eye on online forums for the stolen tires but concedes that she probably will not see them again.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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