Breaking News
More () »

'It's overwhelming': One day in Colorado's auto theft epidemic

A statewide look at a Wednesday in 2021 reveals the depth of the problem across the state.

DENVER — The phone call startled Brad Ouren.

He had left his Chevrolet pickup at a shop not far from his Monument home. It needed an oil change, but the shop was backed up, and so it was still sitting in the yard when he drove by a couple days later.

“The next morning, I got a call from the repair shop and they asked me if I'd picked the truck up that night,” Ouren said. “And I said no. And he said, 'Well, somebody probably just parked it in a different area, or it's probably in one of my bays.'”

Ouren drove to the shop. They couldn't find his truck anywhere. That’s when he realized he’d been swept up in Colorado’s motor vehicle theft epidemic.

Over the past decade, stolen car cases have more than tripled – from just more than 12,000 cases in 2012 to just more than 42,000 last year. That’s roughly 115 vehicles stolen across the state every day.

What does that look like? To find out, 9Wants to Know pulled every police report from a single day – Oct. 6, 2021, a Wednesday.

On that day, victims up and down Colorado’s Front Range and on the Western Slope filed 95 reports involving 98 vehicles – four of them motorcycles stored on a trailer that were taken in a single incident.

The thefts involved 27 law enforcement agencies.

The reports came in at all hours that day, and there was no common denominator to what was taken. They ranged from a 1983 Oldsmobile and a 1987 Nissan Pathfinder to six cars that were brand new – and everything in between.

Credit: Courtesy of the Lakewood Police Department
This Jeep was stolen in Lakewood and tracked down by its owner, who found it abandoned on a street two miles away.

The tally included 35 sport utility vehicles, 25 pickups, 24 cars, 6 motorcycles, 4 vans, 2 all-terrain vehicles and 2 commercial trucks.

The most stolen single vehicle types were Chevrolet and GMC pickups, with 13. Next were Ford pickups – nine were taken.

A breakdown of the data found a mix of good news – and bad:

  • Police, and in some cases the victims themselves, recovered 81 of the 98 vehicles stolen that day; however, that should be tempered by this reality: While some vehicles were found undamaged, others were totaled.
  • Seventeen of the vehicles were never seen again.
  • Prosecutors filed criminal charges in just seven of the cases. In two other cases, police arrested suspect, but no charges were filed.

> The interactive map below shows every auto theft in Colorado on one day: Oct. 6, 2021.

Can't see the map? Click here.

Denver Police Division Chief Aaron Sanchez said auto theft is a property crime in most cases but that the people who steal cars often commit other crimes, including murder.

As a result, detectives see “everything from a puffer and a joy ride up to homicide,” he said.

“It's overwhelming, almost every single day, trying to put the energy into finding and investigating each one of these auto thefts,” Sanchez said.

That so few are solved is not a surprise, he said.

“Really the No. 1 thing is identification,” he said. “We have to be able to put a suspect behind the wheel. … We will find individuals who have multiple auto theft arrests, and half a block away, we'll find two or three stolen vehicles. Until you could put this person in that vehicle, it's just a coincidence.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Arvada Police Department
Arvada police officers boxed this stolen car in after they discovered it parked on a city street with a suspect passed out at the wheel.

Recovered, but totaled

Credit: Courtesy of Brad Ouren
Brad Ouren's 1997 Chevrolet pickup was one of 98 vehicles stolen in Colorado on a single day -- Oct. 6, 2021.

Ouren was the 24th victim on that Wednesday, and the theft was personal, for him and his kids.

“My son and daughter – this was their grandfather’s truck,” Ouren said. “He only had that truck for about a year, and then he passed away. And I've had it ever since.”

His kids called the 1997 Chevrolet Silverado “Gary” – their grandfather’s name.

Ouren said that calling his daughter about the theft was an emotional experience. The plan was for the truck to go to her someday.

“When I told her initially, she – she was super emotional, too, just thinking that we might never get it back,” Ouren said. “It was rough.”

As one day passed, and then another, his hope of ever seeing it again dimmed.

“After three, four days, pretty much every day, the probability was getting to be less and less that it would come back,” he said.

Five days after the pickup was taken, Fountain Police officers were sent to a home where marijuana was growing in the backyard. They found a stolen Corvette in the garage and Ouren’s truck parked in the street out front.

When Ouren was notified, he drove to Fountain and was relieved to see the truck, even though the thieves had busted its steering column, got rid of its topper, left the cab and bed full of junk, painted the front end black and replaced the original tailgate with one off a different-colored Silverado.

Ouren described it as “not as bad as it could have been.”

After he got the truck home, he called his daughter.

“She was really excited to hear that I had gotten it back,” he said.

The insurance company totaled the truck, and Ouren bought it back. He’s cleaned most of the black paint off it, but he’s still starting the ignition with a screwdriver.

“I’m totally glad to have it back for sure,” he said. “It's still functional.”

Two people at the house where Ouren’s truck was found were charged in the theft of the Corvette, but no one was charged in the theft of his truck.

“I would have totally expected that they would have been charged with something,” Ouren said.

That feeling is not unique.

Theft in the night

Jon Rodriguez was asleep in his Edgewater apartment early that Wednesday when his dog, Scout, barked. It was about 3 a.m.

“I didn’t think much of it and probably dozed back off for a second,” Rodriguez said. “And then a few minutes later, I heard a loud thud.”

He went to the window.

“I could only see half of a pickup truck, and some guys like kind of being real quiet – you could almost hear them whispering. And thought, I think they're stealing my motorcycle,” he said.

Rodriguez thought his Yamaha MT07 was safe in a tent next to his building.

Credit: Courtesy of Jon Rodriguez
Jon Rodriguez's Yamaha motorcycle, which was stolen on Oct. 6, 2021.

He called 911, becoming victim No. 2 on that Wednesday.

“By the time I looked back up, the pickup truck was out the driveway,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the last time I saw my motorcycle, in the back of that truck.”

It was never recovered, and no suspects were ever identified or tried. The experience left an indelible mark.

“Every night after that, you’re falling asleep and you hear a noise, or the dog barks or something like that, and you instantly go right back to that moment,” Rodriguez said.

The scope of the problem remains a shock to Ouren.

“A hundred auto thefts a day in Colorado. That blew my mind,” Ouren said. “A dozen or 20, maybe, would have been the number if somebody asks me how many cars do you think are stolen? That's the number I would have guessed. But I just think something's wrong that there's that many.”

> The surveillance video below shows a car theft in progress on Oct. 6, 2021, in Lakewood:

Car theft in Colorado

According to Colorado Bureau of Investigation data, the number of car thefts in the state grew 89 percent from 2017, when there were 22,223, to 2021, when there were 42,061.

Arrests were made in about 10 percent of the cases reported from 2017 through July 2022.

The graphic below shows the percentage of vehicles recovered and percentage of arrests:

A 9Wants to Know analysis of the data found low numbers of arrests in places with some of the most car thefts:

  • Denver Police: arrests in 8% of 45,402 cases.
  • Aurora Police: arrests in 4% of the 20,236 cases.
  • Colorado Springs Police: arrests in 15% of 14,816 cases.
  • Lakewood Police: Arrests in 5% of 7,429 cases.

Even if arrests aren't happening, police are getting a high percentage of stolen vehicles back; 71% of the 147,899 cars stolen over that span in Colorado have been recovered, according to an analysis of the data.

The 9Wants to Know analysis found more than six in 10 stolen vehicles were recovered in those same four cities:

  • Denver: 75%
  • Aurora: 84%
  • Colorado Springs: 65%
  • Lakewood: 69%

Data producer Zack Newman contributed to this story. Read about his data analysis process here.

Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

RELATED: Lafayette woman's car stolen twice in one week

RELATED: 2 officers dragged by car theft suspects, DPD says

SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Investigations & Crime

Before You Leave, Check This Out