On a Tuesday morning on the north end of Santa Maria, a police forensics team dusts a stolen 1994 Honda Accord.
They hope fingerprint evidence will help them catch a thief.
"It appears it was stolen with a shaved key again. It looks like they took the stereo speaker and it was involved in a traffic collision," said Officer Alex George, Santa Maria Police Department.
Officer George can't find the owner, so the damaged car gets towed to a lot. Just a few hours later, police find another stolen car. It's an older model Oldsmobile.
That's good news for a young woman who reported it missing that morning.
KSBY was there when she showed up to get her car. The woman didn't speak English, so reporter Caroline Lowe asked Officer George, who speaks Spanish, for her reaction to losing her car and then getting it back.
Lowe:"How did she feel?"
Officer George: "I was shocked that my car wasn't there, and she started thinking about how she was going to get to work."
Lowe: "And now?"
Officer George: "I feel happy, very happy."
In a strange twist, before the end of the day, police found a third stolen car. It was a Honda Civic which had burst into flames, seriously injuring a man working on it in a garage.
And remember that first Honda found on Tuesday? Police found a fingerprint in their system matching one on its back window.
On Thursday, Officer George tracked down a suspect. He was driving another stolen Honda. Officers found shaved keys and other evidence in the car.
"The main method I have discovered has been the shaved keys," said Officer George.
A KSBY investigation found these four cases reflect just a tiny part of a car theft epidemic happening almost every day in the city of Santa Maria. KSBY decided to take a closer look at this troubling trend after Police Chief Ralph Martin announced last summer auto thefts jumped 83% over the year before.
We also wanted to see how the numbers stacked up with other cities on the Central Coast. By making a California Public Records request, we were able to get Santa Maria's data for 2012, 2013 and the first eight months of 2014.
When we crunched their numbers, our KSBY investigation revealed the city's auto theft trend in 2014 is already way ahead of last year. In the first eight months of 2014, 737 autos were reported stolen in Santa Maria. That's seven more than in all of 2013.
To get a clearer picture of when and where thefts were happening, KSBY created a Google interactive crime map
. Each red icon shows a vehicle stolen this year.
"It's a whole red page. Wow! It's amazing!" said Officer George, looking at the interactive map.
If the current theft rate continues, our KSBY investigation found the 2014 number could triple 2011, when the total was 264.
"I think it's just a transportation mode for their criminal activity. I think they are just going out and doing some other crimes, like burglaries, and they need a car to get from point A to point B and it's easy to steal," said Officer George.
Looking for patterns, we found July was the top month for thefts in 2014. Nearly 120 cars were reported stolen that month, sometimes as many as seven or eight a day. Most were taken at night from city streets.
"It doesn't surprise me," said Officer George, when we showed him a 2014 calendar with red dots listed for each stolen car.
We asked Officer George why there was sometimes a sudden drop in numbers.
Officer George said, "Probably they were in custody for some other crime."
Our crime map shows the increase was all over Santa Maria, but the the biggest concentration was in the northwest neighborhoods of the city.
Reflecting the national trend, older Honda Accords and Civics were the hottest cars for Santa Maria thieves.
"I think it's supply and demand, and it's easier to steal 90s models," said Officer George.
When we compared Santa Maria's 2013 numbers with data provided by ten other police agencies on the Central Coast, we found a startling contrast. Santa Maria, with a little more than 100,000 residents, had 730 car thefts. That's more than five times Santa Barbara with 89,000 people and 128 car thefts. San Luis Obispo tallied 63 cases last year, fewer than the numbers for most months in Santa Maria.
Officer George said, "It's quite a big difference in that number. It is a little surprising."
In fact, Santa Maria racked up more than 300 more auto thefts than those ten communities combined, even though their total population is three times bigger.
Here is a breakdown of the 2013 numbers:
Santa Maria: 730
Santa Barbara: 128
San Luis Obispo: 63
Paso Robles: 39
Arroyo Grande: 23
Grover Beach: 34
Pismo Beach: 15
Making a dent in Santa Maria's car theft numbers is Officer George's mission.
"Actually, I have recovered the same vehicle several times and that's happened with several vehicles and with several victims," said Officer George.
The veteran officer keeps a list of every car he's recovered.
"We do have a lot of vehicles stolen. However, we do have most of them recovered," said Officer George. .
He has been repeatedly honored by the California Highway Patrol for his work. He was also named Santa Maria's Officer of the Year after he found 70 cars and arrested more than a dozen suspects last year.
Since Officer George started keeping track in 2006, he has recovered more than 550 vehicles. In one year alone, he found 100.
We were with Officer George when he recently added numbers 47 and 48 to his 2014 list. Riding with him in October on patrol in his squad, he told us reuniting cars with their owners is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
"For some people, it's their only car, their only transportation, " said Officer George.
Tracking down an owner also saves them a $110 towing fee and $60 a day for storage. Unfortunately, many victims stories don't have happy endings, and they wind up with big towing and storage fees or cars too damaged to be repaired.
While police officials look for ways to put the brakes on car thieves in Santa Maria, Officer George said preventing these "free rides" is the key.
"Be aware this is going on within the city. Don't think just because we live on the Central Coast it doesn't happen here and just happens in big cities," he said.
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office charged 63 adults and four juveniles with auto theft as of September 30, 2014. Seventy-two adults and 12 juveniles were charged in 2013 and 58 adults and 27 juveniles were charged in 2012.
Related links: Google auto theft mapHours auto thefts are most likely to occur in Santa MariaPPIC: Crime Trends in CaliforniaCHP: Fewer vehicles reported stolen in CA in 2013CA Attorney General: Crime in California, 2013