Cars thefts rob Capitol Hill of some of its charm

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Heather Harrell so loves living on Capitol Hill that she long had a laid-back attitude about her car being stolen so regularly that it became a running joke with friends and family.

Three thefts, from 2002 to 2007, were only mildly irritating, she said, especially because the 1999 blue Jeep Cherokee was recovered each time with just minor damage to the ignition and door. Once thieves even vacuumed the vehicle before abandoning it, after using it for a string of robberies.

"Part of me thought, the robbers have always been so nice about the car. I'll always get it back," said Harrell, 43, who is director of member outreach at the American Bankers Association.

But the fourth theft, late last month, left a sour feeling. This time, the sport-utility vehicle was found crashed into a tree near Bolling Air Force Base. Her insurance company declared it a total loss.

"I'm bummed about my car," Harrell said. She feels torn between anger at the perpetrators and her instinct to be compassionate.

"On one hand, I'm liberal, and the poor guys that this happened to, I hope they learned something when they crashed. But they shouldn't have taken it in the first place," she said.

Harrell still wouldn't think of leaving Capitol Hill, where she has lived for 16 years. She treasures the neighborhood feeling and the convenience of having the Potomac Avenue Metro station a block away. Nevertheless, her SUV's ill fate is a reminder of the price of residing downtown.

"Capitol Hill is just wonderful," she said, but "there's an urban living part of this -- your places being broken into, your things being taken."

Automobile theft doesn't get as much attention as homicide, and properly so. But it's the No. 1 property crime in the nation, according to insurers, and an enduring vexation in some parts of our region.

Although the rate has dropped considerably in recent years, automobiles were stolen at an average pace of 13 a day in the District in 2009. The rate was nearly two a day in the 1st Police District, which includes Capitol Hill.

Many cars are stolen by crime rings that sell them overseas or dismantle them for parts, but Harrell's experience doesn't fit that scenario.

"When you see thefts like [hers], you're usually dealing with a situation where somebody stole it to commit another crime or to go on a joy ride. It could be kids in the neighborhood or a gang initiation," said Robert Cline, a senior investigations manager for Esurance, an automobile insurance carrier.

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