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Minivans Have Thief Appeal

By Tracey A. Reeves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 1999; Page B01

If Arlene Craig had known that her family's car was a hot target for car thieves, she would have installed an alarm, a steering wheel lock or an ignition lock, anything to keep it from being stolen.

But Craig, who lives in Bowie, didn't think she had to take such precautions. After all, she drives a minivan, a four-year-old Plymouth Voyager, and surely no one would want that. Right?


Craig's hunter-green Voyager was ripped off early this month from the Landover Mall parking lot just off the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County.

"It did kind of surprise us when we found out it was stolen," said Craig, who uses her van to, among other things, ferry her daughter and her Girl Scout friends back and forth. "I mean, who would want to take a minivan?"

Craig's Voyager was recovered, but as she waited this week for $900 worth of damage to be repaired, she said she still was baffled.

She shouldn't be.

Two minivans--the Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager--are among the most popular prizes for car thieves in the Washington area. They rank just behind the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry and just ahead of the Jeep Cherokee, Acura Legend and Nissan Maxima in local car theft statistics. And those minivans disappear more frequently around here than they do elsewhere in the nation.

What's more, say law enforcement officials, it seems that no minivan is exempt from the trend. Local crime reports show that all makes and models of minivans are being stolen from virtually everywhere, including driveways. They also are showing up more often at the scenes of violent crimes.

According to the Illinois-based National Insurance Crime Bureau, which has tracked auto thefts since 1996, the Caravan is the ninth-most stolen car nationally, the first time a minivan has placed in the top 10.

The trend is especially disturbing in Prince George's County, where minivans are the most frequently stolen cars and are being swiped more often than elsewhere in the area. As of July 1 this year, police said, 222 minivans had been stolen.

The District is not much better off. Police officials there say they don't break down stolen vehicles by make, but they say three to five, and sometimes more, minivans are stolen every day.

Montgomery County's stolen minivan rate is significantly lower than Prince George's County's and the District's, but it is growing nonetheless, according to Sgt. Mitch Cunningham, commander of the Montgomery County centralized auto theft team.

In Montgomery, 37 Caravans and Voyagers have been reported stolen this year, 11 more than all of last year, Cunningham said.

Fairfax County police said they have also seen an increase in stolen minivans, mostly in the Reston and Herndon areas.

For many owners, the trend is difficult to understand.

Minivans, the cars of choice for many baby boomers with children, are widely viewed as a family or "soccer mom" vehicle--the car adults hate to love. They aren't the best-looking wheels on the road. They lack, for example, the sleekness of a Mercedes or Lexus sedan, and they don't carry the "cool" factor of the BMW and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But minivans do have something families and car thieves covet: lots of room. Slightly more than 199 inches long, the Dodge Grand Caravan is one of the longest on the market. It has enough space to carry seven people, or it can accommodate several bundles of stolen furniture and even room-size rugs.

Minivan owners and thieves also like the amenities that many minivans carry--televisions, compact disc players and even elaborate navigation systems.

Law enforcement officials and insurance investigators also believe that thieves like the space in minivans for transporting partners in crime. The easily rolled-out seats and sliding doors make it easier for the thieves to jump out, snatch the goods and make quick getaways.

"We've had cases of people taking vans, throwing the seats out and using the vehicles to steal motorcycles," Cunningham said. "These aren't joy-riding thieves."

Not the image that car dealers had hoped for.

"Many minivan drivers think their vehicles are immune from auto theft," said Michael Erwin, a spokesman for the New York-based Insurance Information Institute. "That's simply not true. Nowadays, minivan drivers need to think like they're driving a Porsche, Mercedes or an Accord."

Sgt. Steven O'Dell, supervisor of the D.C. police department's auto squad, agreed. "People have this false sense of security that because they drive a minivan, their vehicle won't be stolen. They don't know how desirable their vehicle is to the car thief."

Susan Sticha, of Fairfax County, said she certainly didn't know.

"I knew about the Honda Accord, but the minivan?" Sticha said, as she piled groceries into her Grand Caravan at the Giant on Route 1 south of Alexandria. "I hope no one takes it. I need my minivan."

Ditto, said Judy Jurkowski, mother of three children younger than 4.

"It makes me nervous," said Jurkowski, who was also shopping at the Giant.

Police say they are not surprised by the data. Cunningham said his officers saw the trend emerging in the early 1990s, when Toyota minivans began disappearing.

District law enforcement officers have also been aware of the stolen minivan problem and say that such vehicles are being used more and more in the commission of violent crimes.

O'Dell recalled one case in which a minivan was stolen from a parking lot while its owner was at work. The van was later identified as the vehicle used in a drive-by shooting.

"That's what gets me about these stolen cars, especially the minivans," said O'Dell. "We should think of a stolen vehicle as not just a property crime, because stealing a car enables criminals, and that puts the entire community at risk."

As with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, the minivan may be a victim of its success. Law enforcement and insurance officials say that the more popular a vehicle is, the higher the demand for its parts.

Auto thieves know this, said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association's mid-Atlantic region. They also know that the demand spawns a steady supply of stolen parts for unscrupulous body or chop shops.

Prince George's police say that, as with any car, prevention is the way to combat theft.

Roger L. Sanford Jr., program manager for the Prince George's County vehicle theft prevention unit, said he urges minivan owners to invest in anti-theft devices.

It is advice that Rhonda Mitchell, of Glenn Dale, said she would not have thought of when she purchased her Ford Windstar.

"I'm shocked," Mitchell said upon learning of the minivan's new claim to fame. "It makes sense, though. Thank God for garages."

Arlene Craig and her husband, Barry, have a garage, too, but their Voyager was parked out in the open at Landover Mall when they reported it stolen Oct. 1.

"At first I was shocked. Then I went into denial," said Barry Craig. "I thought I had parked it somewhere else and forgot. I never thought anyone would take my minivan."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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