The truck engine began rumbling at about 5 a.m., and Carlyne Tabler ran outside her Spokane home to find a thief inside her truck. It had been stolen just weeks earlier, but had been recovered. Now it was about to be stolen again.
He sped away on East Columbia Avenue in her truck and disappeared, but not before Tabler and her son got a good look at him. They’d seen him at the house next door, they told police, a house they’d been complaining about for months.
That December theft led investigators to a career criminal considered a suspect in a car theft rings.
It’s also one piece of an investigation into a web of property, drug and violent crimes driven by a crime more prevalent than ever in Spokane: car theft. Among the incidents possibly connected to the car thefts: a double murder, a shooting that injured a driver in traffic, and a series of thefts in which stolen vehicles were rammed through storefronts to steal ATMs.
Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick says reducing car theft and catching career criminals are her department’s main goals for 2010, and Washington State Patrol detectives say they’re investigating a case that focuses on both.
But developing solid cases that give career car thieves lengthy prison sentences can be a puzzle that doesn’t always fit together quickly or easily.
And people like Tabler wonder if their tips to police do them more harm than good.
Detectives homed in on a shop in north Spokane last August after catching a man with stolen vehicle parts he said came from there. That took them to a longtime car thief incarcerated at the Spokane County Jail who said he had helped strip stolen vehicles at the shop in exchange for methamphetamine or heroin.
That Sept. 24 tip from Richard P. Hoffman was the first documented connection between the suspected car theft ring and violence. Hoffman said he got the drugs from Merle W. Harvey. Two days after Hoffman reportedly told police about Harvey, Harvey was accused of shooting two men to death in what he said was self-defense but police say was a planned murder over a car trade.
Harvey was arrested two weeks later in Kennewick after police say he stole a car in Coeur d’Alene. Interviewed at the jail, where he’s being held on $1 million bail for two counts of first-degree murder, Harvey said he’d never met Hoffman.
Called a prolific car thief by police, Hoffman was the passenger when driver Joseph J. Ellery allegedly shot another driver in December in what appeared to be an attempted carjacking, but what police say was a dispute over a car.
Meanwhile, with Tabler’s help, WSP detectives were developing a case on a woman they believe has helped orchestrate car theft in Spokane through a home on East Columbia Avenue – the same woman who rents the north Spokane shop where Hoffman said he associated with Harvey.
A review of Spokane County Superior Court records shows the home and its renter, Tracey S. O’Blenness, are associated with career criminals connected by drugs, car theft and, in some cases, violence.
In an interview for this story, O’Blenness called herself a victim of her own bad judgment and said she’s too trusting of people with lengthy criminal records.
Police arrested O’Blenness during a SWAT team raid at her home, 1016 E. Columbia Ave., on Dec. 22. The raid came after her neighbor, Tabler, identified Shawn A. Barton as the man who’d stolen her truck.
The 18-time felon, long a suspect in ongoing car theft and chop shop investigations, was out on $300,000 bail on five charges of first-degree assault.
Now, with Tabler’s help, prosecutors had a reason to revoke that bond and ask a judge for an unusually high $2 million bond.
Barton hasn’t been charged with stealing Tabler’s truck, nor has O’Blenness, and detectives say the case is ongoing. Barton declined to be interviewed for this story.
‘Crime of opportunity’
Car theft peaked in Spokane last October when an average of 60 vehicles were reported stolen in one week. The thefts had increased steadily since the beginning of August, when about 20 vehicles were reported stolen. Since then, vehicle theft has fluctuated, according to data provided by the Spokane Police Department.
Spokane police crime analyst Tom Michaud said car theft has become a “crime of opportunity” for drug addicts looking for a taxi ride or young people looking for a quick joyride.
But as with most crime, the majority of car thefts are the work of longtime offenders, Michaud said.
Police won’t name the offenders they think are responsible for many car thefts unless they have evidence to support an arrest.
But police know that when certain criminals are locked up, car theft will go down. Detectives know that Hoffman, who could not be reached for comment, posted bail in early February, Michaud said.
“Him being out on the street is definitely something we’ll look at,” Michaud said.
Combating that in a time of staffing and budget cuts means prioritizing, and law enforcement officials say their priority is combating repeat offenders. The countywide Repeat Offender Program maintained funding this year, and Michaud said it has gotten more attention over the past two years as officials look at the city’s major troublemakers.
ROPing them in
Carlyne Tabler is moving. She helped detectives monitor O’Blenness’ home for weeks, tracking license plate numbers and calling when certain vehicles showed up. But she fears retaliation after several defendants posted bond, and she said suspicious activity at the home continues.
Jeff Thoet, the WSP detective leading the investigation, is tight-lipped about its status but says the case is far from over. Meanwhile, Tabler quit helping detectives track vehicles at the home and is finishing up her move to a new place.
“We were waiting for bullets to fly, we really were,” Tabler said.
The day after her truck was stolen Dec. 1, police recovered it. But this time, it was inoperable. Detectives found the vehicle stripped. She and her son picked Barton out in a photo montage as the thief.
Barton, Hoffman and other defendants named in the WSP investigation are among 100 to 150 felons in Spokane County policed and prosecuted under the Repeat Offender Program. The interagency program operates on the premise that 15 percent of the people commit 80 percent of crimes.
“It’s people who earned the right to be looked at more closely, due to their criminal convictions and multiple new files,” said Deputy Prosecutor Bob Sargent.
Under the program, prosecutors, detectives and crime analysts discuss which criminals are causing problems. They stay in contact when repeat offenders are arrested and prioritize prosecution, looking for additional charges or sentencing factors that can be applied.
That happened to Barton when he was stopped by city police Oct. 17 on suspicion of reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. He posted bond and was arrested two months later on a new warrant based on the WSP car theft investigation. Now Barton is being held on $2 million bail, facing charges that could put him away for decades.
Barton’s never been charged in federal court, where stiff sentences can put repeat offenders away for decades. But other longtime offenders have, including a methamphetamine dealer who’s named in investigative reports linking him to O’Blenness.
Casey D. Beckham, 34, was arrested in May 2009 after a SWAT team standoff at a north Spokane apartment. Police found him with a pound and a half of methamphetamine, $8,500 and a dozen stolen firearms.
Beckham’s plea to a federal charge of felon in possession of a firearm, coupled with his lengthy criminal record, qualified him as an armed career criminal. He signed a plea agreement Feb. 12 that gives him 15 years in prison, followed by 10 years probation.