KSBY News has learned Santa Maria police officials will soon announce a plan to combat an auto theft epidemic on city streets.
For the past several months, KSBY has been investigating the Santa Maria crime wave. Our "Free Ride" investigation found more cars stolen in the first eight months of 2014 than in all of 2013, a year that saw an 83% hike over 2012.
The Santa Maria increases come at a time the state has shown a slight drop in auto thefts, according to a California Highway Patrol report. Older Hondas were the hottest targets for thieves, reflecting the national trend.
As part of our investigation, we also focused on tips for preventing auto thefts. We interviewed a Santa Maria man who was charged with that crime.
As a condition for the exclusive interview at the Santa Maria Police Department, we agreed not to use his name and we hid his face and disguised his voice.
"It's a sad thing people are losing their cars every day, and you know, I am guilty of that," the man told KSBY reporter Caroline Lowe. "Don't take it for granted your neighborhood is a good neighborhood. Doesn't matter. They need to lock their cars."
He told us how easy it is to steal a car.
"People just leave their car windows open. Some people leave their keys in their ignition and it's sad at how soon and quick things evolve around there," the suspect told Lowe.
Police say most Santa Maria car thieves are drug addicts who are looking for an easy way to get around or for transportation commit other crimes, such as burglary or gang activities.
"People walking by see an opportunity to get a free ride. It's sad but they made it too easy.They made it too easy."
The theft suspect told us about a time he decided not to steal a car he saw running in front of a city store.
"Something told me, don't take the car but explain to the guy what's going on," he said. "So I waited, and the gentleman walks out, and when he does I ask him, 'is his your car?' And he says 'yes' and I said 'listen, I was about to take your car but I am not going to take it and I didn't take it. I am just going to share with you, you need to be more careful. You are setting guys up like myself that are down and out, on dope. You are setting us up to do the wrong thing.'"
The man, who would not talk about his own pending criminal case, said owners should use security devices, such as clubs and alarms, to protect their cars.
"When you see those, you avoid it and you just keep going," he said. "I know it's a hassle, probably, putting them on, but they do work."
We asked if he had seen cars which were secure and moved on.
"Oh yeah. There's blinking lights, that's attention. You don't want attention. So you stay away from those cars. That just draws too much attention, so you just avoid those. So alarms, they work," he said. "I don't know anybody who really just takes anything or any vehicle with those clubs on or with an alarm. I have never heard of it or ever seen them do that so they must work. From my point of view, they do work. I would avoid them. Take it very seriously to lock up your cars. That's all I can say. "
Santa Maria police and a local insurance agent have some additional advice to protect your car against thieves.
Officer Alex George, who was named Santa Maria's Officer of the Year after recovering 70 vehicles and arresting more than a dozen suspects last year, said it's a good idea to take a photo of your car and its license plate. Having that information immediately available, Officer George said police can be on the lookout for it a lot sooner if your car is reported stolen. He said reuniting stolen cars with their owners is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
Longtime State Farm Santa Maria insurance agent Donna Randolph also recommends you do an annual review of your insurance policy. She said that way you can be sure how much coverage you actually have if a thief takes off with your car.
You can watch part one of our investigation here: http://www.ksby.com/news/free-rides-part-1-santa-maria-s-auto-theft-epidemic/
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 www.ksby.com/pages/santa-maria-auto-thefts/