Colorado Springs sees record year for auto thefts

Mar. 5—Katie Behar, a single mother of two in Colorado Springs, purchased a 2021 Kia in late December.

“Raising two kids by yourself is hard,” Behar said. “I decided to kind of reward myself by buying a new car.”

Three days after she bought the car, she parked outside a friend’s home in the Briargate region on the northeast side of the city, and went away on a ski trip.

When Behar returned about twelve hours later, there was an empty space where her car once stood.

“My car was gone,” she said.

Behar was one of thousands of Colorado Springs residents who were victimized during an unprecedented year for auto thefts in the city. According to the Colorado Springs Police Department, 3,291 vehicles were stolen in 2022 — the city’s highest number on record.

The city’s car theft problem is a microcosm of a statewide phenomenon. More than 38,000 vehicles were reported stolen in Colorado in 2022, a rate of about 661 thefts per 100,000 residents — the highest rate in the US, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

About 90% of the cars are eventually recovered, but many are severely damaged when the owners get them back. When Behar’s car was found in a dentist’s parking lot in January, it was totaled.

“It was pretty bad,” she said of her car’s condition. “The front bumper was damaged, the thieves broke the window to get into the car, there were crushed beer cans, liquid and food residue all over the car.”

On Feb. 1, Colorado Springs police arrested a group of juvenile males in a stolen vehicle. Law enforcement officials say the teens dubbed themselves the “Kia Boys” and are suspects in a rash of Kia thefts around the city in recent months. Behar said the juveniles are likely the ones who stole her car.

“I had my keys with me when I went skiing, but they apparently used a phone-charger cord to start the car,” Behar said. “I mean, how do you steal a brand-new car without a key?”

Newer cars typically come with anti-theft protection like automatic door locks, alarms, tracking software and specialized keys.

“But people always find a way,” said Nick VinZant of QuoteWizard, an online insurance comparison firm. As a senior research analyst, VinZant tracks nationwide trends that impact the insurance industry.

MJ Thomson, one of the Colorado Springs Police Department’s four crime prevention officers, agrees with VinZant’s estimate.

“Some car thieves are highly skilled,” said Thomson, a 25-year law enforcement veteran. “And criminals communicate with each other. They share information, just like the good guys do.”

According to QuoteWizard data, Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks are the most frequently stolen vehicles in the state, followed by Honda Civics.

“Pickups are generally the most frequently stolen vehicles nationwide,” VinZant said. “There are a lot of them, they are valuable and they can be stolen for parts. Truck parts, especially catalytic converters, are in high demand.”

Lyssa Mackin said her son’s 2000 Chevy Silverado was stolen from outside their home near the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Mackin said police told her family the truck may have been taken by joyriders, but the more time passes, the more convinced she is that her son’s vehicle was stolen for parts.

“I have given up hope,” said Mackin, who still occasionally drives around the city looking for the truck. “I completely believe his truck was targeted for a chop shop.”

Chop shops — locations where stolen vehicles are dismantled for parts that can be sold or used in other vehicles — are relatively rare in Colorado Springs, Thomson said.

“We come across one every now and then, but they’re not particularly prevalent,” he said. “Right now, the motivation is drugs — fentanyl and marijuana.”

Criminals often used stolen cars to transport illegal narcotics across the US, Thomson said.

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“Colorado is right smack in the middle of the country,” he said. “(Interstate 25) runs from Texas, through Colorado, all the way up to the northern border, and I-70 runs from the West Coast to the East Coast — right through Colorado. And I don’t care what anybody tells you: The borders are wide open.”

Laura Bratt is convinced that her car was stolen by drug dealers.

When her vehicle was taken from her driveway on Jan. 6, 2022, she decided to track it down on her own. Tracing the vehicle through her work computer, which was inside the car when it was taken, she found it at a residence near the intersection of South Corona and Aspen avenues, she said.

“I saw my car sitting in the driveway,” Bratt said. “So I called the police, parked down the street and watched the car.”

According to Bratt, she and her 23-year-old daughter watched the car for eight hours.

“We watched these people, with my car, as they did drug deal after drug deal,” she said.

Residents warned her that it was a dangerous neighborhood, but Bratt was determined. She wanted her car back.

“I would have waited all night if I had to,” she said.

Largely because of a shortage of officers, Colorado Springs police are forced to prioritize emergency calls over nonemergency ones, Thomson said. Because Bratt’s situation was not considered emergent, her eight-hour wait was not atypical.

Police arrested Andrew McGee, 34, on suspicion of stealing Bratt’s car and illegal possession of a weapon, according to court records and information provided by Bratt. Records show that McGee, who was wanted on six outstanding felony warrants at the time of his arrest, is currently in prison — but not for allegedly stealing Bratt’s vehicle.

On April 13, 2022, McGee was arrested and charged with illegally possessing a weapon. He pleaded guilty to the charge in May. Court records show that McGee has an extensive criminal history, including an arrest for suspected auto theft in September 2021 — about three months before he allegedly stole Bratt’s car.

Law enforcement can catch car thieves and put them in jail, but it’s not always easy to keep them there, Thomson said. When someone is convicted of stealing a car, the sentence varies depending on the value of the vehicle. Stealing a car worth $2,000 or less is typically a misdemeanor.

“A lot of the vehicles being stolen are misdemeanor-level,” Thomson said. “So even when we’re able to arrest them, they don’t even go to prison. It’s frustrating.”

Help could be on the way, according to law enforcement officials. A bill that would make all car thefts in Colorado a felony, regardless of the vehicle’s value, recently passed through a state Senate committee. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 23-97, is set to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee later this year.

In the meantime, Thomason said, there are measures car owners can take to reduce the risk of theft.

“Park your car inside whenever you can, and always lock your car doors,” he said. “Do it every time. If you have a garage, don’t leave your door open while you’re inside the house.”

Thomson also advises motorists not to leave any possessions visible inside the car.

“It might just be a gym bag with sweaty workout clothes in it, but a thief won’t know that,” he said.

Finally, he said, never leave your car running. A significant percentage of stolen cars are vehicles that are “puffing,” Thomson said.

“(Criminals will) run around in stolen vehicles, in groups of three or four, and they drive by convenience stores, coffee shops, supermarkets, looking for running cars,” he said. “When they find one, one person jumps into it and drives off.”

“Never leave your car running,” Thomson said. “Ever.”


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