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April 19, 2001

Phoenix Ground Zero for Car Thefts

Filed at 2:28 a.m. ET

PHOENIX (AP) -- John Scott didn't skimp when he began customizing his Honda Civic. He spent $15,000 -- $6,000 on the stereo system alone -- and bought an alarm to protect it all.

Even so, he woke up one morning to find nothing but broken glass in his driveway. "That they have enough courage to steal in my own driveway, it's weird,'' the 21-year-old car alarm salesman said.

That's the reality facing drivers in this fast-growing metropolitan area, which has the misfortune of being the country's hot spot for car thieves.

Citing FBI statistics, the National Insurance Crime Bureau said the Phoenix area reported 979 auto thefts for every 100,000 of its residents last year, the worst rate in the nation. Phoenix is the nation's sixth-largest city, with more than 1.3 million residents.

So many cars are stolen in Phoenix -- two were reported missing every hour last year -- that officers no longer take the reports in person. They refer victims to a call line instead.

Officers say they cannot pinpoint any one cause.

Arizona is a border state, so many stolen cars end up in Mexico. About two-thirds of the 25 metropolitan areas with the highest rates of vehicle theft in 2000 were at or near U.S. borders, reflecting a thriving international trade for pilfered autos, the NICB said.

In some cases, thieves steal pickup trucks and large vehicles to carry illegal immigrants who have been smuggled into the country.

Other factors like good weather and the number of expensive cars contribute to making the city "a kind of shopping mall'' for car thieves, said Paul Mortensen, director of the Arizona Auto Theft Authority.

Cars are also often stolen by joy riders, which means some areas have good recovery rates. Phoenix Officer Bob Baraban said he recovers a couple of cars daily from parking lot "dumping grounds'' that he checks regularly.

Catching the thieves is another thing. They're not only elusive but can be very aggressive when trying to escape.

One suspect eluded a helicopter by driving into the Phoenix airport parking lot. Another abandoned a running vehicle on a freeway ramp, forcing Baraban to stop it with his own car before it hit commuters.

Even when suspects are caught and charged officers say they are discouraged by how quickly they are freed, only to offend again.

"It's frustrating when you see the same people over and over,'' Baraban said. "It's like a revolving door.''

Officers are also alarmed that thieves have become increasingly bold.

Yolanda Sores, manager of a thriving car alarm store in northwestern Phoenix, said one customer told her she watched a man take her car out of the garage then wave as he drove off.

"They are not afraid people might see them, they are not afraid of being caught,'' said John Bier, a detective in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb. "It's like an epidemic. It's happening so frequently we don't have enough officers and so quickly that even with twice the number of officers, it still wouldn't stop.''

Possibly making the problem worse is that the thieves aren't choosy. Many seem to prefer pickup trucks, but no car is safe.

"They'll steal anything,'' Bier said. "We go from the '72 Toyota to the 2001 Chevy truck.''

Police believe they can combat some of the thefts by raising awareness. Officers in Tempe have been giving out steering wheel locks to apartment tenants who attend crime prevention meetings at their complexes.

Scott, who replaced his car shortly after the theft in September, has certainly learned. At work at a strip mall, he parks his shiny black Audi in front of the door. He skipped the expensive stereo and alarm this time, however.

"If someone wants your stuff, there's nothing you can do about it,'' Scott said.

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