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The same 1993 Honda Accord, curiously, has been stolen eight times this year in towns across Colorado.

A white tow truck is prowling the Denver area at night, boosting cars and hauling them — most likely — to a garage where they are stripped for parts.

And in Aurora and Denver, two men and a short woman known as the "2½ bandits" have stolen a getaway car just before each of seven bank robberies.

Identifying such patterns is the work of a new criminal intelligence lab in Lakewood that has its sights set on car thieves. The lab — the Auto Theft Intelligence Coordination Center — is part of an aggressive offensive to cut down on car theft in Colorado, a state that just a few years ago was a hot spot but is among the top three nationwide for turning those statistics around.

Still, typically 140 cars a week are stolen in Colorado. Many of the thieves commit violent crimes in the same spree. And there are huge gaps in auto-theft investigation here — cities cannot yet pinpoint auto-theft hot spots, and some law enforcement agencies take too long to report cars stolen.

Despite the recent progress, Colorado residents are still more likely to find their cars stolen than people in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Illinois.

The silver Dodge was screaming up Interstate 70 at 2 a.m., outgunning a state trooper who had flipped on his lights because of a minor traffic violation.

It was only after the 19-year-old woman crashed inside the Eisenhower Tunnel that the reason for her 100-mph run became clear: She told troopers she thought they were after her because she stole the vehicle 11 days earlier.

None of the law officers involved in the July chase even knew the car was stolen. The reason? Authorities in the small western Colorado town where it went missing hadn't filed a report in a statewide database yet.

A delay in auto-theft reporting by police and sheriff's offices was one of the first problems targeted by Colorado's new auto-theft lab when it began work in January.

Denver, Aurora and Lakewood authorities are quick to report stolen vehicles. But some jurisdictions were taking from two weeks to three months.

Now the average delay in reporting a stolen vehicle is about 1.5 days, down from more than four days a few months ago.

. . .The lab is elevating the crackdown on car thieves from the days when it was up to street cops to notice patterns by patrolling a beat. For the first time, statewide auto-theft data is analyzed at a central spot.

In the near future, the lab expects to have precise enough data to tell a certain police department: "Have your officers at the movie theater on Wednesday night" or "Watch the mall parking lot between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m."

"We haven't changed how we do auto theft since the 1970s, and that doesn't work today," said Rich Smith, a sergeant with the Colorado State Patrol who runs the lab.

The lab is sometimes called on to help with terrorist threats investigated by the "fusion center" — formally called the Colorado Information Analysis Center — where it is housed.

When federal officials learned of a credible report that al-Qaeda was planning to use car bombs to target bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Colorado's auto-theft lab compiled a list

Read more:Colorado company takes on the high-tech war on car thieves - The Denver Posthttp://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_18972017#ixzz1cT7a0Wcc
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of about 35 medium-heavy trucks that were reported stolen here.

Colorado sent the list to East Coast authorities with license-plate readers — dashboard computers that can sweep an entire parking lot for stolen vehicles within minutes.

The lab also is working with the Drug Enforcement Administration to find out how many vehicles stolen in Colorado end up in Mexico.

. . .Sgt. Smith doesn't consider car theft a property crime, something resource-stretched police and sheriff's departments give lower priority than rapes and murders. It's a "transitional crime" — many of the "bad guys" who steal cars are using them to kidnap, rob banks or drop a load of drugs, he said.

"You are not going to take grandma's car to the bank robbery," he said.

Technology — including gadgets that rapidly scan license plates and cars that are harder to steal — has cut down on amateur car thieves. What's left are the "true criminals," Smith said.

Of the 30,966 auto-theft cases in the past five years, about 75 percent involved another crime, according to data released to The Denver Post by the Colorado Judicial Branch.

In 59 cases, the primary charge was murder. Among the other primary charges accompanying auto theft: 225 robberies, 52 second- and third-degree assaults, six sexual assaults, one sexual assault of a child and one animal- fighting.

In 2005, Colorado had a higher motor-vehicle-theft rate than all but six states, according to FBI statistics. But in the next four years, that rate was slashed by 56 percent, changing Colorado from a hot spot to a state whose theft rate is better than the national average.

Only two states, Arizona and Nevada, achieved a larger reduction in auto-theft cases.

. . .The auto-theft lab's next goal is getting much more detailed theft reports.

As of today, Smith can't say what neighborhoods or city blocks are targets for car thieves because theft reports often give the owner's address, not where the car was stolen. Another bit of information the lab considers useful: Is there a suspect, perhaps an ex-spouse or teenage grandson, maybe a roommate?

The lab is funded by a $1 fee on vehicle insurance policies, a fee that generates about $4 million a year for the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority. The authority also gives cash to police and sheriff's offices for the creation of auto-theft task forces. The state now has about 10 multi-jurisdictional task forces.

A $233,000 grant helped open the state auto-theft lab. And Smith is seeking a $100,000 grant from the authority to help automate theft reports and collect 50 pieces of information about each theft — everything from the theft location, type of vehicle and method of entry to the color of the car.

Why car color? Some drug rings prefer dark trucks, believing they're harder to spot at night.

The grant money would go toward a computer system that any law officer could access and enter stolen vehicles within minutes of taking a report. Today the officer who writes the report must have it approved by a supervisor, who then sends it to a records manager and then to a state database.

Armed with detailed and timely reports, the lab could help police catch criminals faster. The case of the Honda Accord stolen eight times this year, for example, has finally been turned over to authorities as suspected insurance fraud, but it took months.

The auto-theft intelligence center was born out of conversations last year with local law enforcement officials about how the state's fusion center, which is dedicated to combating terrorism, could help with more mundane crimes, said James Davis, executive director of the Department of Public Safety.

"We picked auto theft — taking a small bite of the apple," he said.

. . .Click, click, click.

As Lakewood Officer Steve Hipwell drives slowly through aKing Soopersparking lot, cameras on the sides of his cruiser photograph license plates and transmit the numbers to his computer, which searches for matches to a national database of stolen cars.

There are four cameras on his cruiser: two on the sides for parked cars, one to check approaching cars, one to check cars passing on the right. The automated license-plate reader, one of two in Lakewood, costs $40,000 but can check up to 60 cars a minute.

The plate readers are a prized new weapon in the battle against car thieves. There are 22 in Colorado, and they check about 2 million license plates a year, or half the cars in the state.

Hipwell finds no stolen cars this day, but in Lakewood alone, dozens of stolen vehicles have been recovered simply by patrolling the streets with plate readers. "It's a great tool," Hipwell said.

. . .Insurance claims for stolen vehicles in Colorado total about $44 million a year; the average claim is about $6,500, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. Insurance companies end up paying about $22 million because about half of the vehicles are recovered.

Walker believes auto-theft task forces have played an important crime-fighting role in states such as Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania, whose auto-theft rate is now comparable to the theft rates in North Dakota and Montana.

The auto-theft task forces have busted up several theft rings. An investigation by the Eastern Metro Auto Theft Team resulted in a 24-count indictment against six people, including purported ringleader Mikel Mewbourn.

Mewbourn is accused of multiple car thefts, including a scheme in which he allegedly claimed his $115,000 Ferrari 550 Maranello was stolen from a valet parking garage while he dined inside a downtown Denver Hyatt. Surveillance tape showed the silver sports car leaving the garage while Mewbourn ate his dinner.

He collected about $39,000 — his equity in the Ferrari — from his insurance company, then allegedly paid a friend $10,000 to help him disassemble the car at a warehouse. Mewbourn sold the engine, transmission and numerous other parts on eBay, according to the indictment.

Another case in Denver illustrates the scope of the damage one theft ring can inflict.

According to court records, Levi Yazzie, Tiffany Weaver and Harold E. Margeson, with the help of 11 others, stole 26 cars and trucks and six construction trailers in 10 months. The thefts took place in four counties.

They also broke into 29 other cars and trucks, hitting as many as three in a day, to steal everything from snowboard gear and golf clubs to credit cards, checks and a cache of bonds. They stole hospital IDs, a prescription pad and a blood-pressure cuff from medical doctors. They stole a prayer book and a sociology text.

In one car they found keys to two others — and stole both of the other cars.

They rolled the stolen trailers into H.E.M. Enterprises, a company Margeson ran from a ramshackle building in Lakewood, one block from an Audi dealership. There they removed identifying information, then obtained stickers for homemade trailers from the state Department of Revenue and sold the stolen trailers to unwitting buyers.

Sometimes they stole license plates and placed them on stolen cars to conceal the car theft. Sometimes they fabricated a temporary license plate and stuck that in the window.

Incredibly, they stole a dozen cars and trucks and broke into 22 others after several of the ringleaders were busted March 6, 2010.

When police recovered a stolen Lexus, along with Yazzie and Weaver's pit bull, Yazzie called an Arvada detective to get his dog back.

"It was a helluva chop-shop operation," said Sgt. David Hoover, an auto-theft task force supervisor. "Trading for drugs, taking parts, stealing trailers."

Another group of thieves in north Denver stole engines out of Hondas and Acuras to use in street races, Hoover said.

One theft ring chopped stolen cars in storage facilities. Another used an abandoned house as a place to hide stolen cars.

In Arapahoe County, a driver dragged the police officer who tried to stop her, seriously injuring the officer — and leading detectives to a car-theft ring.

The $1 fee also pays the salaries of a prosecutor and investigator at the state attorney general's office devoted to breaking up auto-theft rings. Before the grant money, only district attorneys' offices — not the AG — handled car thefts.

"Auto theft, I think, affects all of us," said Jean Woodford, first assistant attorney general. "Anybody that has car insurance, it affects us."

Courtesy:  Denverpost.com
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