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On a Sunday morning this past March, Ted Ruckman drove his white Ford truck to the Palisade peach orchard his family has owned for four generations, killed the engine, slipped the keys into the console, and set off around a garage to fix a broken-down backhoe. While making the repairs, Ruckman heard the light crunch of gravel under tires but didn’t think much of it. One of his neighbors headed to church, most likely. When he rounded the garage on his way to pick up more parts, however, Ruckman discovered his truck was gone.
Two days later and five miles away, as friends and family gathered for the funeral of Kenneth Sanders, a former U.S. Marine who died from cancer at the age of 71, thieves kicked in his widow’s front door. Several men tore through the Mesa County home, ripping open cabinets and riffling through drawers, stealing firearms and much of the jewelry Kenneth had purchased for his wife, Penny, during their 46 years of marriage. When a local deputy arrived, he found the Sanders’ TV in the driveway and a boot print on the splintered front door.
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That same month, a task force created specifically to investigate car-related crimes met at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office for its regularly scheduled weekly operation. The group wasn’t designed to investigate burglaries like the one at the Sanders’ house, but the leaders of the task force, a Colorado State Patrol (CSP) initiative dubbed Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement (BATTLE) West, had been trying something new to fight a rise in auto thefts. From 2019 to 2021, car thefts in the United States increased by 25 percent, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). The crime wave hit Colorado particularly hard: The number of boosted vehicles here skyrocketed 98 percent from 2018 to 2022, earning the Centennial State the dubious distinction of being, per capita, the car theft capital of the country.
Instead of solely targeting auto theft, BATTLE West had started offering to help law enforcement agencies in its western Colorado district pursue all property crime. The thinking behind the strategy: When a law is broken, a stolen car is typically involved. The Sanders’ burglary was a perfect example. After BATTLE West received its briefing on the case, “it became a target of focus for us,” says Sergeant Brian Eldridge, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office’s liaison to the task force.
The investigation moved quickly. Questioning of Sanders’ son’s wife yielded the names of two potential suspects, Devon Krieg and Zander Saunders, who once had been friends with the daughter-in-law’s son. Based on surveillance of Krieg’s home, a judge signed a search warrant for the property, where officers found the Sanders’ personal documents; debit, credit, and social security cards; and 17 guns, which evidence suggests the suspects intended to sell to other parties. “The interesting thing was—and this was just happenstance—when we located the residence where all that stolen property was,” Eldridge says, “there was a stolen truck.” Officers identified the white Ford hidden beneath blankets and a tarp as belonging to Ted Ruckman of Palisade.
The disappearance of the Ford slowed operations at Ruckman Family Orchards, but to Ted, the loss felt personal. “The biggest thing was the audacity of people to take other people’s property. That’s not the way we live out here. It was, it was…,” Ruckman pauses. “They entered my space. This is my space.”
For most of Ruckman’s life in Mesa County, crime—especially car theft—didn’t seem like something he had to worry about. Master Sergeant Scott Simons can empathize. Before the pandemic, Simon would hear about maybe one pilfered car a day in Grand Junction, where he has been based for most of his two decades with CSP, but that’s changed since 2020. “There were days with five steals, and none of them were related [to each other],” Simons says. “It’s not like an auto theft ring or they were taken from a dealership. It was just sporadic. They were popping up all over the place.”
Along with the crime’s growth came a change in its nature. Historically, people stole cars because they could sell them for money, either intact or by chopping them up for parts, or because they were looking for a good time. “Auto thieves today are not joyriders,” says Cale Gould, spokesperson for the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority (CATPA). “They’re not Nicolas Cage in Gone In 60 Seconds. They don’t have great skills where they could steal high-end cars in 60 seconds. Auto thieves are career criminals who steal cars for the entire purpose of committing other crimes.”
It’s CATPA’s mission to ensure they never get that chance. As part of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, CATPA collects one dollar from every auto insurance policy issued in the state to fund initiatives that deter auto thefts. Most of the time, the money—$5.7 million annually, on average—is disbursed to law enforcement agencies through grants, including the one that pays for BATTLE. Started in 2018, BATTLE split the state into four geographic regions (North, South, East, and West) with the intent of using additional resources—i.e., money—to entice agencies in those areas to work together to investigate stolen cars. As the statistics indicate, the plan didn’t work.
Then, in 2022, Simons was promoted to lead the Investigations Unit in CSP’s Grand Junction office, inheriting BATTLE West in the process. One of his orders from the higher-ups in Denver: Fix the task force. “They wanted to see some changes,” Simons says.
There are many reasons why car thefts in the United States have increased over the past few years. Anytime there’s economic uncertainty, there’s a rise in crime. The NICB also points to the emergence of keyless fobs and drivers’ penchants for leaving them in consoles as making cars easy pickings for would-be robbers. On social media, a collective of crooks in Minneapolis who call themselves the Kia Boyz used social media to show followers across the country how to exploit functional flaws in Kias and Hyundais to boost the rides. Today, those brands comprise a quarter of all thefts in the United States.
There are institutional issues that make catching car thieves difficult, too. Many times, where vehicles are nabbed isn’t where they’re found, meaning they may have crossed jurisdictional borders. Furthermore, some police agencies, especially in rural areas, don’t have the resources to devote to auto theft, especially when they have decided that other crimes must take priority. Criminals are also aware that most law enforcement agencies will not pursue suspects in stolen cars because a chase can cause massive property damage and, sometimes, fatalities. Police believe it’s safer to catch up with the criminals later.
But why has Colorado seen a steeper rise in auto theft than other states? “That’s a million-dollar question,” Gould says.
John Pickard has a theory. A commander with the Lakewood Police Department, Pickard leads the CATPA Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force (C-MATT), which is separate from BATTLE but has much the same mission, only for the Denver metro area. In 2014, the Colorado Legislature decided that, to convict someone of auto theft, the state would have to prove that the accused thief knew they were in an ill-gotten ride. A person’s fingerprint on the gearshift, for example, was not enough evidence; they could have been a passenger. “We had lots of cases that were declined by the [district attorney’s] office,” Pickard says, “because they had a very difficult time showing that the person knowingly was in possession of the stolen vehicle.”
Facing this litany of obstacles, BATTLE didn’t seem to be making much of a dent in car crime. Part of the issue was that while auto theft was BATTLE’s mission, it wasn’t the primary concern of many local law enforcement agencies, who might be more focused on expending their limited resources toward, say, the shoplifting sprees plaguing their retail centers. But after surveying offenses in Mesa County, it became clear to Simons that car theft was connected to just about every other type of crime. “It was very rare that you would arrest somebody for auto theft without some secondary charges involved,” Simons says.
In early 2022, Simons called Sergeant Justin Montover, who at the time led the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office’s Property Crime and Investigations Unit, and together they began organizing weekly, daylong operations targeting property crime suspects. BATTLE West’s bankroll funded deputies’ overtime so they could work outside their normal shifts. Every Wednesday, the sheriff’s office’s intel unit would print out a list of warrants for shoplifting, burglary, and other offenses, as well as a list of stolen cars in the area. The officers would then knock on the doors of suspects while keeping an eye out for any stolen cars near the premises. While in jail, those people couldn’t steal more cars. Montover was so committed to the project that he spent the allotted annual overtime budget in two months. “I’m not overly proud of that by any means,” Montover says.
But when Montover went to his superiors at the sheriff’s office to apologize, they told him to keep going. “They refused to give the operations up,” Montover says. The task force had proved so successful that Mesa County moved money around in the department’s budget to continue funding overtime pay until the next CATPA grant cycle started in 2023. The investment paid off. By the end of 2022, car theft in the BATTLE West region had decreased by 32 percent over 2021, compared with an increase of 11 percent across the state during the same time frame.
Perhaps more important, BATTLE West operations resulted in a decrease in all property crime in the area, and as arrests began stacking up, more departments and agencies within BATTLE West’s purview wanted in on the ops. Within a few months, the task force’s numbers swelled from a handful of Mesa County deputies and CSP’s two Grand Junction–based investigators to 20 or so officers from the Grand Junction, Montrose, and Cortez police departments. Representatives from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation also joined the initiative. In terms of size, BATTLE West equaled an entire small-town police force. “Everybody started realizing in different meetings and briefings that not only are vehicle crimes falling,” Montover says, “but also all property crimes are falling—and some of these property crimes are related to violent crime.”
In an attempt to expand BATTLE West’s successes, CSP rolled out similar weekly operations across all its regions, including the newly formed BATTLE Southwest, in 2023. By the end of June, BATTLE North, for one, had worked with the Greeley Police Department to complete 19 missions, recovering 57 stolen vehicles valued at a combined $687,000. They also made 30 arrests on warrants for things like vehicle theft, aggravated robbery, felony menacing, and first-degree murder. “I think the charges that came on top of normal auto theft were far and away a greater impact to the community than just recovering the vehicles,” says Sergeant Jamie Colyer, who leads BATTLE North. Still, Colyer was happy to report that, after a 25 percent increase in 2022, car theft in BATTLE North had fallen 21 percent through June of this year.
Jade Beach spent the winter in Bozeman, Montana, caring for his grandmother in hospice. After her death, he drove home to New Mexico but stopped to visit friends for a few days in Lakewood—where thieves broke into his steering column and made off with his 1989 Toyota Camry.
Police recovered the sedan a few weeks later, when someone drove it to an unrelated court appearance and license plate readers in the parking garage identified the Camry as stolen. It’s now sitting in an impound lot and will reside there for the foreseeable future, as Beach, who lived in Denver for five years, isn’t sure he wants to retrieve a car whose value might be less than the impound fee. (The experience has left Beach feeling more than a little cynical about his former hometown. He now thinks of Denver as an “open-air insane asylum.”)
BATTLE doesn’t cover the Denver area because the metro requires more attention than a part-time operation can offer—as anyone who’s read headlines lately can attest. In July, a woman was shot in the hand after using an Apple AirTag to track her stolen Kia Optima to a parking spot in Aurora. Earlier in the year, a man also found his own pilfered car—and shot and killed the 12-year-old boy he found in the driver’s seat. In fact, if BATTLE’s regions had been completely theft-free in 2022, Colorado would still have ranked sixth in the United States for auto robbery, thanks to the Denver metro, where more than 30,000 cars were filched. As such, the Mile High City has its own, dedicated CATPA initiative: Pickard’s C-MATT, a full-time task force of 12 officers and two civilians staffed by eight departments in Jefferson, Denver, Arapahoe, and Adams counties.
Denver is not only more active than the rest of the state, but its criminals are also more organized. In 2021, for example, C-MATT spent nine months investigating an enterprise that officers dubbed “the Sopranos” due to the blood ties of its members (as well as to one suspect tattooing “Sopranos Style” across his forehead). The Sopranos were more structured than car thieves in, say, Grand Junction, but they, too, boosted rides as conduits to other crimes. A grand jury eventually indicted four suspects from the group under Colorado’s Organized Crime Control Act, finding the faction responsible for $1.2 million in stolen vehicles, catalytic converters, and weapons.
Although his thieves are more coordinated than Simons’, Pickard has begun incorporating BATTLE West’s approach as a piece of C-MATT’s overall strategy. “Anybody who is successful,” Pickard says, “others would be remiss not to try and look at their success to see if we can apply it to what we do.” Police agencies in the Denver metro have long helped their neighbors out after a serious crime. Now, C-MATT is offering aid more frequently for smaller offenses, Pickard says, “because, by golly, they’re probably going to be involved with a stolen car.”
Pickard isn’t the only one who has noticed BATTLE’s success. Captain Mike Ryan, who runs CSP’s investigative services section, says Governor Jared Polis personally contacted CATPA to offer congratulations. This past legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 23-257, which earmarked $5 million for CATPA’s prevention efforts, nearly doubling its annual budget. Applications that rely on multiagency cooperation, such as BATTLE, will receive priority access to the new funds. State legislators also approved SB 23-097, which makes stealing any vehicle a felony offense. (Previously, car theft charges were based on a value system; taking a clunker worth less than $2,000, for example, was a misdemeanor.)
While both bills received bipartisan support, not every legislator believes funding police initiatives is the answer. “Why are people doing nefarious deeds in the first place?” asks state Representative Lorena Garcia, one of 10 in the House who voted against SB 23-257. (Only one senator objected.) Garcia would rather that money be put toward social programs: “What we need to do is invest in our people.”
Ryan says the extra money will, in part, allow BATTLE to pay for bigger operations, including even more overtime for law enforcement agencies that have been clamoring to join the task force. In the future, BATTLE might be able to go full time, like C-MATT. As for concerns about state money going to a larger law enforcement presence? All Ryan can do is point to BATTLE West: “When we’ve seen nothing but increases since 2014 and suddenly our first significant reductions come right from the area that we just tested our new strategy out? I don’t know if I’d say it’s an outlier as much as I’d say it’s a trend in the right direction.”