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Liberty Lake car prowls trigger manhunt

The Liberty Lake Police Department mounted an aggressive response when 11 car break-ins were reported in one night last Thursday. By the end of the day, they had identified three suspects and sent 20 officers to canvass the parking lots of hotels and large apartment complexes close to Interstate 90 to hunt for the thieves.

Two of the three suspects were nearly arrested early last Thursday, but a new police radio system that hasn’t been fully integrated allowed them to get away, said police Chief Brian Asmus.

A Washington State Patrol trooper spotted a car driving oddly on Harvard Road at 4 a.m. last Thursday and attempted to pull it over. The car sped away and got in a wreck near Harvard and Euclid. The man and woman inside ran away as the trooper called for backup. Police are using a new digital radio system, but it hasn’t been set up to allow different agencies to talk to each other, Asmus said. No Spokane County deputies or Liberty Lake officers were notified of the trooper’s call for assistance, but a Liberty Lake officer happened to drive by on his way to a call and stopped to help.

“They got away,” Asmus said. “The car, from what we can see, is full of stolen property related to our car prowls.”

A stolen credit card led police to a Zip Trip gas station, where police used video surveillance to identify a woman and two men getting gas and lottery tickets, Detective Ray Bourgeois said.

The group seems to prefer stealing from cars parked at hotels and large apartment complexes, Bourgeois said. Stolen credit cards have been used to buy gas and to shop at local Wal-Marts. Bourgeois said the same group appears to be responsible for dozens of other break-ins in Spokane, Airway Heights, Spokane Valley and at the Spokane International Airport. A recent rash of break-ins in Coeur d’Alene may also be related.

“These guys have been all over the county,” Bourgeois said. “I know the Valley has been hit pretty hard.”

Liberty Lake officers and officers from other departments across the region, primarily the Airway Heights Police Department, fanned out across the county last Thursday night checking hotels and Wal-Mart stores. The hotels were full because of the NCAA tournament. “You would be surprised at the number of cars that had laptops, wallets, GPS and other high-value electronics in plain view,” Bourgeois said.

In Liberty Lake one hotel guest lost $10,000 in camera equipment. A Canadian couple on vacation had their passports stolen, complicating their trip home. Another hotel guest had more than $4,000 in jewelry stolen.

Part of the problem is that several of the cars were left unlocked, Bourgeois said. “Most of them were easy,” he said. “People were nice enough to leave their cars unlocked with high-value items inside.”

A search warrant has been granted for the car recovered last week, and police hope to file charges soon against the people they have identified. “Now we’ve got to find them,” Asmus said. “They’re transient. They’re staying at hotels.”

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