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Illustration by Yuta Onoda

What I Learned After Someone Stole My Car 

A reporter digs into Colorado’s auto theft boom after becoming a victim herself.

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I was handling myself pretty well until they pulled the crack pipe out of my back seat. It was June 1, 2018, less than a week since I’d moved to Denver for an internship at the magazine you’re currently reading. I stood in the dusty lot of Mirage Recovery Service in Commerce City, where local police had towed my Honda CR-V following her four-day spree in the hands of a thief. Now, she’d returned to me, drivable despite a dented front bumper—and stuffed with souvenirs.

The crack pipe. A flat-screen television. Crumpled sheets of paper, one detailing a number of “grams” for an unnamed “teenager.” Syringes. Unidentifiable powder. And, for some reason, copper wind chimes. When the Denver Police Department (in whose jurisdiction my car was taken) called to tell me that my vehicle had been located, I was given instructions to drive it back to the Mile High City. But the Mirage guys didn’t think it wise for me to travel across the metro area hauling a carload of burgled goods and drug paraphernalia. So they hoisted each item into a dumpster as I dissolved into tears.

Unnerved, I contacted the DPD with questions. They had few answers. I never learned who stole my CR-V or if anyone was convicted, though it seems unlikely. Colorado cops are great at getting cars back (between January 1 and April 30 this year, 96 percent of stolen vehicles were recovered), but Denver officers solve or otherwise clear such cases only 12 percent of the time as of 2017, the most recent data available. I did discover, however, that I’ve become a statistic in a growing problem: According to a 2017 report from the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau, the Denver metro area has the 20th-highest auto theft rate per capita in the nation, which ranks well above places such as Los Angeles and Chicago. In 2008, we were 75th.

“Colorado has big-city problems now,” says Carole Walker, chair of Coloradans Against Auto Theft (CAAT), a state task force created in 2010 to lead prevention efforts. Walker, along with police, partially blames the population boom for the increase in stolen cars—studies show greater density and income inequality correspond with rising crime.

But transplants don’t shoulder all the blame. Two years ago, overdose deaths involving opioids in Colorado reached the highest they’ve been since 1999, mirroring the nationwide epidemic. With more oversight, it’s become challenging for those addicted to pain medication to obtain prescriptions, so they’re increasingly tapping the illegal market. Offenders often use stolen cars for drug transport, police say, so cars like mine—left unlocked with a spare key foolishly stashed in the glove box—become ideal delivery vehicles. The data bears this out: Colorado saw a 115 percent rise in motor vehicle thefts that included assault/violent crime charges between 2015 and 2016. Commander Mike Greenwell of the Lakewood Police Department says these arrests often involve drugs.

Even though a recent survey shows that a growing number of Coloradans recognize auto theft as a problem, almost a third still admit to leaving their vehicles running while unattended, a practice called “puffing” that’s illegal statewide. (You’re most likely to pay the $60-on-average fine during “Puffer Week,” an annual winter campaign during which officers across Colorado crack down on the offense.) This month, National Vehicle Theft Prevention Month, CAAT’s Lockdown Your Car initiative will organize both education efforts and community events (check your city’s website for more info). “People are starting to see that auto theft is connected to more violent crimes,” Greenwell says. “I think the increased awareness is starting to pay off.” I don’t know if my CR-V was party to any violence, but I know its owner feels plenty educated. I just hope others don’t have to learn these lessons the way I did.


64%

Increase in the number of cars reported stolen in the Denver metro area from 2008 to 2017

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