D.C. police went fishing recently -- but they weren't casting for bass in a quiet pond. They were trawling for car thieves in the heart of Southeast Washington, using a specially equipped car as bait.
And, to officers' chagrin, the bait was swiped right off the hook.
The episode took place at the start of a new police program to combat auto theft. The idea called for police to put "bait" cars on targeted streets, lure in auto thieves, and then make arrests.
Everything went according to plan on May 13 -- except the part about quickly recovering the car and making an arrest.
That day, police were testing one of the five new bait cars near Minnesota and Massachusetts avenues SE. They hoped that a thief would briefly drive away with the car, described by officials as a type of sedan popular with thieves. Police would trigger an electronic pulse that would lock the car's doors and shut down its engine.
A suspect would be quickly apprehended. And as an added bonus, the entire theft would be caught by tiny video cameras in the vehicle, making an airtight case.
As it turned out, police learned that they'd better keep a closer watch on the bait.
A group of officers was watching the car at about 12:35 p.m. when a man jumped into the sedan and drove it two blocks. He then got out of the vehicle and vanished from sight, police officials said.
Instead of keeping watch over the car, which officers had trouble seeing, police decided to rely on high-tech tracking systems to follow the sedan if the thief returned and drove away again.
A few minutes later, police said, the man again hopped behind the wheel and motored off.
So far, so good. But as officers trailed several blocks behind, the tracking signal died.
The car and suspect vanished just over the Maryland line.
It took police two days to find the car in Prince George's County. An $80 videocassette recorder in the car's trunk, which was used to record the sting operation, was missing, police said.
"It was really an eye-opener to be more attentive," said Capt. Michael Reese, who oversees the bait car program. "With electronics, you need several backup systems."
Reese said police were seeking a suspect in the case.
Meanwhile, officials have grounded the program until they upgrade the cars' tracking system. They also are making it more difficult for thieves to steal VCRs, just in case the cars unexpectedly slip away again.
Police officials believe they should be angling again for car thieves by July 12.
"We won't lose them anymore," Reese said of the bait cars.
D.C. police heavily touted the bait cars at community meetings a few months ago as a way to reduce auto thefts in some of the District's hardest-hit areas, particularly Anacostia.
Police said they were embracing the tactic because they have strict rules prohibiting high-speed pursuits of car thieves and they want to make criminals think twice before hot-wiring a car and taking a joy ride. They said similar stings have worked elsewhere.
Car thefts, particularly by juveniles who enjoy the thrill of racing down city streets, are a major problem in the District and some suburbs.
On June 18, a stolen Jeep driven by a 14-year-old plowed into a car at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. A 37-year-old economist, Marx Aristide, died in the crash, which took place at 6:30 p.m.
So far this year, the District had recorded more than 4,100 auto thefts, down slightly from last year at the same time.
"We want them to think twice about what they are taking," Reese said.