Last month the number of vehicle prowls tripled in Liberty Lake compared to the previous month, prompting police to increase patrols in residential neighborhoods and use social media to urge residents to lock their cars and garages.
“Every day there was stuff coming in,” said Ray Bourgeois, a detective.
There were 21 reports in June of items taken from cars in Liberty Lake, up from seven in May.
Some cars were unlocked. Others had their windows bashed in. The thieves took GPS units, guns, cash, credit cards – anything of value. The thieves sometimes struck half a dozen cars on the same street in one night.
Bourgeois started getting reports of credit cards stolen from vehicles being used at local stores. He tracked down video surveillance footage and began trying to identify the people and vehicles shown in them. It was slow work, but Bourgeois got some tips from Spokane Police Department officers who recognized some of the vehicles.
Then police got lucky. On June 20, the thieves hit an unlocked garage and rifled two unlocked cars inside. They also took a bicycle – a very distinctive, bright yellow Specialized bike. Bourgeois found it later that day at a pawn shop.
Bourgeois identified the man who signed the pawn slip and discovered he was a repeat offender with a lengthy criminal record in Bonner County, Idaho. He’s on probation and isn’t supposed to cross the Idaho state line, Bourgeois said. First suspect, identified.
That same night a truck was stolen from the 1000 block of North Malvern Road. It was dropped off in a neighborhood north of Millwood – right in front of a home where video surveillance cameras had recently been installed. That video showed the driver being picked up by a green sedan that also was seen in several of the credit card theft videos.
Then, three days later, another stroke of luck: A resident near Colony Court and Settler Drive called police at 2 a.m. to report seeing a group of people get out of a truck and start walking through the neighborhood, looking inside cars as they went.
Police arrived and found the truck. Inside they could see women’s purses, a bike, several backpacks and what appeared to be a package stolen off someone’s porch. Believing something suspicious was going on, they seized the truck so they could apply for a search warrant.
Soon after, officers found a man walking in the neighborhood. He denied any connection to the truck and didn’t have any stolen items on him, so police had to let him go. Just after 5 a.m., police found a man and a woman walking in the Interstate 90 median. Again there was no evidence to hold them on criminal charges, so they were let go.
But as residents began to wake, the vehicle prowl reports started coming in. Police quickly realized that several of the items reported stolen were easily visible inside the truck they had seized. And when the search warrant came through and police searched the truck, they found a purse belonging to the woman they had spoken to in the I-90 median.
The woman police identified was recently released from prison and is on probation. She was sentenced to 22 months in prison in 2014 for her involvement in a vehicle prowl ring that targeted hotel parking lots along I-90. She pleaded guilty to 20 criminal charges.
Police also found a man’s wallet in the back seat that contained a Department of Corrections identification card belonging to the first man police had spoken to that morning. He’s on probation after being released from prison on charges of assault, residential burglary and theft.
Bourgeois filed paperwork this week recommending criminal charges against five people, including all three people police contacted in the early morning of June 23. But there may still be more unaccounted for.
“It seems like we have more than one group,” said Police Chief Brian Asmus. “There’s different vehicle descriptions and different suspect descriptions.”
“We might have two or three crews,” Bourgeois said.
Meanwhile, Bourgeois continues to find and recover stolen property from local pawn shops. He’s trying to determine if the people pawning them are involved in the thefts or just selling stolen property.
“Items (stolen) at the same residence get pawned at different places by different people,” he said.
While Bourgeois continues mapping out the crimes on a giant white board and looking for commonalities, Asmus has had his officers urging people to lock up and hide their valuables. People often believe crime won’t be a problem in Liberty Lake and don’t bother locking anything, Asmus said.
“Our officers at night are knocking on doors telling people their garage is open,” he said.
At the very least, he said, people need to make it a point to write down serial numbers and other identifying information so their property can be recovered if it is stolen.
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