Police call them “meth taxis.”
In Spokane, car thieves are stealing aging Hondas and Toyotas to transport drugs and then dumping the vehicles, driving the city’s car-theft rate to one of the highest in the country.
“We will catch these guys with key rings full of shaved keys that work on old Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans. … They just see a car, try one of their keys, and if it works they steal it,” said Sgt. Tom Hendren of the Spokane Police Department’s special investigation unit.
Unlike traditional car theft where vehicles are sold for parts, meth taxis typically are stolen, used and then discarded, investigators say. The phenomenon isn’t limited to Spokane.
Sometimes vehicles will be used within a multiperson drug ring, and a vehicle can be shared or be stolen several times among competing criminals before it is recovered, said Det. Jerry Walker of the Washington State Patrol.
Walker estimates that 95 percent of the vehicles stolen are drug-related.
Because the city doesn’t separate data on vehicle thefts for parts versus vehicle thefts for use in committing other crimes, such as transporting drugs, most of the evidence is anecdotal.
Spokane has the fourth-highest rate of auto thefts per 100,000 residents in the country, according to a report released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau this year. Spokane and Yakima are the only cities outside of California to make the top five. Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano top the list.
The city has averaged more than 1,800 stolen cars each year since 2007, according to Spokane police data.
In the unincorporated county, about 836 cars are stolen each year. A majority of those thefts are done to commit other crimes such as transporting drugs, said Karla G. Bryant, crime information analyst for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
A meth taxi theft might be opportunistic, Hendren said. Other times, criminals take the time to stalk their victims’ driving habits.
“They may not steal your vehicle at first,” said Walker. “They will watch to see if you leave your car on while you run into the store, or how long you leave your car running in the morning in your own driveway. It just depends how desperate they are.”
Walker said there have been several recent cases where drivers high on meth careened stolen cars through buildings or into telephone poles.
“When you have someone traveling 80 miles per hour into a telephone pole, you have more than just auto theft involved – he is obviously under the influence,” Walker said.
Police watching repeat offenders
Budget cuts eliminated the Spokane Police Department’s property theft unit in 2011, so Spokane police are working on a new strategy to mitigate auto thefts by focusing efforts on repeat offenders.
“Repeat offenders account for the bulk of thefts,” police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said. “Five percent of criminals commit 90 percent of all crimes.”
Auto thieves tend to be repeat offenders because they make bail before their court dates, said Bryant, the crime information analyst for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
“They get released from jail and wait for their court date and will commit more crimes during this period,” Bryant said.
“It is a cost-benefit situation – they have more to gain because they make bail so easily.”
Even when they are caught, most auto thieves spend only two or three years in prison, Bryant said.
A different type of car theft
In traditional car theft, criminals “chop” the vehicle into parts and sell them individually.
“The most-stolen vehicle in recent years has been the 1994 Honda Accord, hardly an expensive car if you buy it from a dealer,” said Frank G. Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “But if you steal one and sell the parts from it, you can make a lot more money than the car is worth intact.”
But with meth taxis, the value is not in the parts – it’s in the transportation needed to support the criminal’s drug habit, law enforcement officials say.
Often, the stolen vehicles are abandoned. Police log the possessions in the car and confiscate illegal items, such as drugs, when necessary. Towing companies then store the vehicles until they are collected by the owners or sold at auction.
“Many vehicles are returned in very poor condition,” said Walker, of the WSP. “They break into your car, tear out the ignition, rummage through all your personal items, leave garbage. These are certainly not clean people.
“The longer it takes to find your vehicle the more likely your vehicle will be in poor condition.”