DENVER — Colorado’s record-breaking surge in car theft is being driven, at least in part, by repeat offenders who steal one vehicle after another, a 9Wants to Know analysis of state court data found.
That’s no surprise to Lakewood police Cmdr. Mike Greenwell, head of the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force. That task force focuses on auto theft hot spots and repeat offenders – so it makes sense that the officers on it deal with people who steal cars more than once.
“I would say that 95% of the people my team arrests have multiple prior arrests for auto theft,” Greenwell said.
But he said he has looked extensively at police and court records beyond those generated by his squad of 11 officers and reached the conclusion that “two thirds of the people arrested for auto theft have prior auto theft arrests.”
The question of what drives the state’s auto theft epidemic comes against this backdrop: 41,359 cars stolen in Colorado in 2022 – more than triple the number taken a decade ago.
That led 9Wants to Know to a question: Are there a lot more car thieves – or are there some car thieves who are stealing a lot more cars?
What the data shows
To find out, 9Wants to Know pulled 22 months of data from the state court system – all 10,373 criminal cases in which motor vehicle theft charges were filed between Jan. 1, 2021, and Oct. 31, 2022.
From that data, 9Wants to Know pulled 10 cases at random that were scattered among metro area counties and dug into the backgrounds of the suspects. It provided a snapshot of the toll that repeat offenders exact on the criminal justice system:
- Every single one of the 10 suspects had been charged with stealing cars more than once – and collectively, they faced auto theft charges in 43 separate cases.
- On the low end, three of them were charged in two separate cases – and on the high end, two of them were charged in seven cases.
- In the 43 separate cases involving the 10, the suspects pleaded guilty to a motor vehicle theft charge in 27 of them. In 11 cases, auto theft charges were dismissed in a plea deal with prosecutors. In the other five cases, charges were dropped, but it’s not clear from court documents why.
The data analyzed by 9Wants to Know did not include the names of the suspects but did contain their dates of birth and other demographic information, such as genders and races.
An analysis of all 10,373 criminal cases found that in 2,072 – almost exactly one-fifth of them – had matching date-of-birth and demographic information for defendants in at least two cases from that 22-month span. In other words, it suggests 1-in-5 of those charged during that period in 2021 and 2022 had at least two auto theft cases filed against them during that timeframe.
> Video below: Denver's police helicopter tracks suspects after a stolen car chase at an apartment complex in Westminster on Jan. 19, 2021:
'Your car got stolen'
Zoe Hudson-Young was at home in January 2020 when she got a call from her teenage daughter: “Mom, um, uh, your car got stolen.”
“I really thought she was joking,” Hudson-Young said.
Instead, she was the victim of one of the 10 repeat offenders whom 9Wants to Know randomly pulled from state data.
Hudson-Young’s daughter had borrowed her Subaru to go to swim team practice at a recreation center in Golden. While she and her teammates were in the pool, a woman with a long criminal record entered the locker room, rifled through backpacks and left with keys to two cars – Hudson-Young’s and one driven by another swimmer, according to court documents.
An accomplice was waiting outside the rec center, and the two women allegedly drove off with the vehicles, the documents say.
“I know it's just a car,” Hudson-Young said. “It's just a material object, but still, it's your personal possession. I think it was just kind of like, shock.”
She got another shock weeks later when a credit card statement arrived in the mail. That’s when she realized that she had left a charge card in the Subaru – and someone had been using it.
The woman captured on surveillance footage going into and out of the locker room that day ultimately pleaded guilty to attempted theft in that case in a plea deal that saw the auto theft charge dismissed.
She was also charged with stealing four other vehicles – two in another 2020 case and two more in a 2021 case, both in Arapahoe County. She is now serving time in community corrections.
Proposal to revamp penalties
Greenwell said the details of the 10 cases 9Wants to Know pulled – and the backgrounds of the suspects – line up with what he sees every day.
“We're seeing this over and over,” he said. “We're arresting the same people. They go in, they get a low bond, they get out, they go steal a car. And then days, weeks, months later, they get arrested again. And we start that cycle all over again."
The cases examined by 9Wants to Know bore that out.
> Video below: On Nov. 30, 2020, Denver police officers received a report that a man was passed out at the wheel of a car with its engine running. After checking, they determined that the car was stolen:
Judges granted personal recognizance bonds to five of the 10 suspects in at least one case. That means they were arrested and then released after signing a pledge to attend court hearings.
The examination also showed that even in some cases where the suspects pleaded guilty to stealing a car, they got probation, small fines or short jail terms.
One man was sentenced to a total of 80 days in jail for stealing two cars. Another got 90 days in jail, another 78 days in jail. One of the 10 was fined $910.50 in a car theft case.
A bipartisan group of state legislators has proposed a measure that would revamp state law when it comes to car thefts. Right now, the seriousness of the criminal charge is tied directly to the value of the vehicle that’s stolen.
If a car is worth less than $2,000, the suspect can be charged with a misdemeanor – something that happened in about 20% of the cases filed during that 22-month span.
The new measure would make all auto thefts a felony. It also calls for anyone with two auto theft convictions to face a higher-level felony.
“Vehicles in our society are the way to get your kids to school, they’re the way to get to work, the way to get to important appointments,” said state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from El Paso County. “And when you deprive someone of a working class or a low-income family of a vehicle, you’ve probably done much more damage to them than when you’ve stolen a $100,000 vehicle from someone who has one or two more in the garage.”
> The video below published Jan. 30: Colorado lawmakers announce plan to revamp auto theft laws:
The bill does not specifically address bail. But Gardner and state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Jefferson and Adams counties, both said they hope to send a message that stealing a car – any car – is a serious crime and should be treated as such by judges.
In addition to Zenzinger and Gardner, multiple sponsors from both sides of the political aisle have signed onto the bill.
“We’ve come together as a community of law enforcement professionals, of community leaders, to say what do we agree on,” Zenzinger said. “And it turns out we agree on this. We agree that it doesn’t make sense to treat victims differently under the law, and we also agree that we need to do something more for those repeat offenders.”
Investigative data producer Zack Newman contributed to this story. Read about our data analysis process here.
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: email@example.com or 303-871-1862.
More 9NEWS stories by Kevin Vaughan:
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