Bait Cars Help Reel In Thieves

Marvin Romeo Argueta-Guzman and Jose Alberto Portillo were convicted of car-theft charges after Arlington police videotaped them trying to steal a vehicle.
Marvin Romeo Argueta-Guzman and Jose Alberto Portillo were convicted of car-theft charges after Arlington police videotaped them trying to steal a vehicle. (Photos By Arlington County Police Department)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Keith DuBois chalked it up to poor luck the first time someone broke into his 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee. But the second time, about two weeks after he had spent $3,800 on repairs, DuBois realized it wasn't just misfortune.

"My car had a giant target on it," he said. Both times, it was parked beneath a light on the same Arlington County street, and both times, someone used a sharp object to pry the driver's door and rip open the steering column. It's also one of the most commonly stolen vehicles in Virginia. "I didn't want there to be a third time," DuBois said.

And so DuBois, 46, did what no other Arlington resident has done: He offered to give his sport-utility vehicle to the county, a donation that the five-member county board accepted Saturday.

DuBois had read about a police department program that uses bait cars rigged with audio and video recording equipment and engines that can be shut off with the push of a remote button to nab thieves. He figured that if the bad guys were so determined to steal his Jeep, they could do so under the watchful eye of the law.

"If it's that desirable of a car to steal, then I want for it to do some good," DuBois said.

Bait vehicles tempt thieves with unlocked doors or keys dangling in the ignitions. The second that a thief takes the bait, hidden audio and video recording devices are activated, and a silent alarm alerts the county's emergency communications center. By tracking the car's internal global positioning system unit, dispatchers monitor its location, travel and speed, and as soon as officers are in position, the dispatchers disable the engine and lock the doors.

Thief caught. Case closed. Almost every time.

Arlington police officers have responded to 73 activations and have made 56 arrests since the first car was deployed in February 2002. The activations that did not result in arrests include cases in which someone tampered with a bait vehicle but didn't drive away or in which juveniles were caught poking around inside vehicles and weren't arrested.

To date, every defendant has pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor theft charges because of the "indisputable video evidence," said Lt. Mark Belanger, head of the county's auto theft unit. "When we've got you on videotape breaking into a car, there's not much you or your lawyer can say about it," he said.

"By adding this Jeep to our fleet, we expect to get a few more activations and make a few more arrests. This is great for the Jeep owners out there," Belanger said, noting that Jeeps are among the top three vehicles stolen in Virginia. The bait fleet has other commonly stolen cars, such as Hondas and Dodges.

Arlington was the first county in the Washington region to adopt the program, and most area jurisdictions, including the District and Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, have implemented it.

Aside from being a high-tech way to nab thieves, bait cars provide a rare look at the initial moments of a common crime. Most of the time, it's not that exciting, officers said, because most interceptions take place within about two minutes and most arrests within four.

But not always. In one Loudoun incident that has become infamous among area police departments, a man stole a bait vehicle and was able to drive it from Leesburg to Southeast Washington because of technical difficulties. Police eventually got the suspect, minutes after the camera caught him smoking crack and masturbating. He had spent part of his ride urinating in a soda can, then drinking his urine to try to quell a case of the hiccups. He also vomited twice.

"We still crack up about that one," said Detective Chris Dengeles, of Arlington's auto theft unit. Mostly, though, "we might have guys muttering to themselves. Nothing real exciting."

The cars are placed in high-theft neighborhoods, including those near Columbia Pike and Fairlington. In 2002, when the bait car program began, 676 cars were stolen in Arlington. The next year, the number was down to 599, before sinking to 493 in 2004 and 419 last year, the county's lowest figure since 1965. This year, Belanger said, the number should be about 350.

At least three thieves have been nabbed since Loudoun launched its program in late 2003, police spokesman Kraig Troxell said. And in Washington, officials said that more than two dozen arrests have been credited to the program.

Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D) said the decision to expand the county's program to include DuBois' car was a no-brainer. "It was an easy vote," he said Monday. "This is one of our most successful programs in terms of reducing crime, and obviously we want to take maximum advantage of a citizen who wants to make this kind of donation."

By accepting DuBois' offer, the County Board also authorized expansion of the bait car program and agreed to begin accepting vehicles from Arlington residents. Police said that DuBois' Jeep will be repaired -- again -- and outfitted with about $4,000 worth of equipment.

"The more hooks you have in the water, so to speak, the more fish you're going to catch," Dengeles said.

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