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Neighborhood where deputy was killed is Colorado Springs' auto-theft central

March 4, 2018 Updated: March 5, 2018 at 12:31 pm
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An El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy works the scene of an officer-involved shooting that left at least one El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy dead Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, at an aparment complex in Colorado Springs, Colo. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker)

The apartment complex where El Paso County Sheriff's Deputy Micah Flick was killed during an attempted auto-theft arrest is at the heart of a city neighborhood most afflicted by motor vehicle thefts in 2016, a Gazette analysis of the latest full year for which census data was available.

Murray Hill Apartments, at Murray Boulevard and Galley Road, is in census tract 60, the boundaries of which stretch from Academy Boulevard east to Babcock Road, and from East Platte Avenue north to Palmer Park Boulevard. It's where 60 of the city's 1,828 motor vehicle thefts in 2016 happened, tying for highest in the city with tract 21.02, which intersects in the southeast at Pikes Peak Avenue and Chelton Road.

Overall, there was a 23 percent jump in car theft in 2016 from 2015, leading to a more robust effort by the Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement, or BATTLE, task force. The group of officers was designed to reduce thefts, catch prolific offenders and eliminate crime rings. Funding for the task force doubled to $1.2 million that year, increasing again this year to $1.4 million, grant applications show.

 

To reverse the rising thefts, the unit focused enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, using tracking devices to monitor the movement of stolen vehicles and tailing suspected thieves to catch them behind the wheel, State Patrol spokesman Rob Madden said.

But, even before tragedy struck with the Feb. 5 shootout that killed Flick and wounded sheriff's Deputy Scott Stone, sheriff's Sgt. Jacob Abendschan and Colorado Springs police Detective Marcus Yanez, the unit was in an uphill fight. A passerby, Thomas Villanueva, was also gravely injured in the shootout. The car theft suspect, Manuel Zetina, 19, who pulled a pistol, was also killed.

While the task force could point to a 4½ percent increase in arrests during fiscal year 2016, which ended in June 2016, and a 32 percent increase in the value of recovered vehicles, it didn't stop more cars from being stolen, reports said. Thefts spiked 38 percent the last five months of the year.

It left Colorado Springs ranked 74th in the nation for most car thefts, a National Insurance Crime Bureau report showed. Pueblo ranked second and Denver ranked 26th.

A task force report hinted at the reason: While the unit is designed to stop thefts it may actually be spurring them on as thieves are forced "to steal more cars" to make up for the 92 percent being recovered by the unit.

"If we recover a vehicle, the thief will not do without, he will steal another. If we arrest an offender with a tracker, he is not going to risk keeping the vehicle multiple days anymore. He is going to steal another vehicle each day to make sure it is 'clean,'" a July 2017 report said.

The trend was not unique to Colorado.

Auto theft is increasing nationwide, even in other areas where task forces operate, such as Riverside County, Calif., which has operated a Riverside Auto Theft Interdiction Detail (RAID) since 1993.

Despite arresting nearly 200 auto thieves each year and recovering about 500 stolen vehicles, auto theft has continued to increase over the past five years, according to California Highway Patrol Lt. and RAID coordinator Mario Lucio. But that doesn't mean the unit's work isn't important, he said.

They're still removing hundreds of thieves from the streets and educating the public on how not to fall victim to auto theft, he said.

"It's important to show our citizens what we're doing as a county to protect one of a person's most prized possessions, and that's their vehicle," Lucio said.

Colorado's team has had success, according to its reports, which are more recent than the census data.

A 2017 quarterly report said "the number of thefts in BATTLE areas continues to increase," noting that four of five enforcement areas across the state saw "significant increases despite the best efforts of our investigators and partnering outside agencies." In the Pikes Peak region, which includes Colorado State Patrol and law enforcement agencies in El Paso, Teller and Pueblo counties, thefts increased 8 percent the first half of 2017, it said.

Still, the unit conducted 149 proactive operations in that time, resulting in the recovery of 208 stolen vehicles valued at more than $1.7 million, and 82 felony arrests, nearly half of which were repeat offenders.

So far in fiscal year 2018, according to a February report, the unit has recovered 115 vehicles, made 57 arrests, and seized 6.7 grams of methamphetamine, an undisclosed amount of black tar heroin, $25,000 in cash and two handguns. The report also noted a decrease in auto thefts this year, though it did not provide numbers.

Some of the causes behind fluctuations in auto theft, the task force's reports say, is "population growth, public carelessness (leaving valuables and keys in car), parolee/halfway house locations, gang activity or initiation, etc."

Juveniles are especially part of the auto-theft problem in the Pikes Peak region, reports recognized.

The 2018 report noted a recent case in the Pikes Peak region involving a 15-year-old who was arrested during a surveillance operation. He had five separate aggravated motor vehicle theft warrants for his arrest.

The report supported an analysis of juvenile arrests in Colorado Springs from 2013 through Sept. 30, 2017, which showed, overall, juvenile crime was not increasing, but that a larger portion of those arrests were for motor vehicle theft. When crimes like simple assault and shoplifting, which had been steady for years, took steep dives in 2017, motor vehicle thefts nearly quadrupled.

The motivation behind the thefts also has changed, Madden said.

In the past, stealing a vehicle was about "joyriding" and being able to cruise around town in a "cool" vehicle while getting from point A to point B, Madden said. Now, thieves, including juveniles, steal to commit other crimes, he said.

A 2017 Colorado Department of Public Safety analysis found that 75 percent of stolen vehicles were used in other crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and identity theft. Ninety-seven percent of adult auto thieves also were charged with additional crimes, a separate Coloradans Against Auto Theft study showed.

Of the vehicles stolen in the Pikes Peak region, according to the 2018 report, owners had left the keys in about 20 percent of them. To prevent such easy thefts, agencies have "Puffer" campaigns discouraging motorists from leaving their vehicles running unattended to warm up, and reminding residents not to leave their keys or valuables in vehicles.

"There needs to be community involvement," Madden said. "For the prevalence of auto theft, it will take more than law enforcement to bring that number down."

The task force, which is expected to be funded through 2029, requested this year more equipment to continue its fight to end auto theft, including 16 automated license plate readers, five pairs of night-vision binoculars, a telephoto camera lens, and a video camera with night recording capabilities.

"If funding were denied," the 2018 budget report warned, "the most significant impact may be to the citizens of Colorado Springs, the largest agency of the BATTLE South Task Force."

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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