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Monday, December 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

As Spokane beefs up efforts to catch car thieves, some – including prolific one who targets Subarus – won’t stop

In the time it takes to tidy your bed, floss your teeth or microwave a bowl of rice, 19-year-old Christian Normand can steal your car. If it’s an early-’90s-to-2000s Subaru, even better.

His methods are sleek, his tools simple and ingenious: after cutting the metal tine of a garden rake, he jams the curvy end into the now much looser outside lock. Once inside, he forces it into the ignition, and turns over his new key.

He might case the car first – or change his clothes in a shady alleyway before hopping in – lest any cameras are watching. He’ll probably drive it around for a few hours, then drop it off at his next new Subaru. Car, to car, to car, to car.

From the moment metal meets metal, it’s gone in 60 seconds. Or, in one of his most recent alleged cases, 79 seconds – a slower time than usual, police say, for a vehicle thief who boasted to KHQ about stealing more than 130 Subarus since he was 16. Officers have officially linked him to about a half a dozen.

“It was less than five steps from the back door of my work. Literally less than five steps,” said Josh Adams, one of Normand’s most recent victims, whose 2000 Subaru Impreza went missing Feb. 7 out of the Vapor Lounge parking lot near the Shadle Walmart. “I pulled in at about 3 p.m. for lunch. I tried leaving at about 6:30 p.m. I walked out back and it was gone.”

Adams’ experience isn’t isolated. Since at least the year 2000, Spokane has consistently ranked as one of the worst cities in Washington for people hoping to permanently keep their cars in their driveway. For several years it even ranked in the top 15 cities in the United States in terms of vehicle theft rate, though according to recent National Insurance Crime Bureau data, has since fallen to 36th in 2017.

On any city block, odds are someone living there has had a car stolen. Or knows somebody who has. The probability worsens if they own a 1992 to 2002 Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Subaru Legacy, Honda CRV or Subaru Impreza – the five most stolen makes and models of 2018. Recent police data shows that of the about 1,600 vehicles in Spokane nabbed last year, a quarter were Hondas.

While the vehicle theft rate across the state has fallen considerably since the mid-2000s and continues to hover around a rate of about 400 per 100,000 residents, according to FBI data, Spokane sits much higher at about double the rate. And while each year can net different results, it’s been climbing slowly since a recent low in 2007. That came after a high around 2005 – when roughly one in 83 Spokane residents had a vehicle taken.

Much like the city’s history with combating property crime, vehicle theft is particularly tricky to police. Law enforcement agencies across the county and state agree: While they’re doing their part by making arrests, they say nonrestrictive release conditions in courts, and a lack of supervision for property criminals once convicted has created an ever-rotating door of prolific lifelong criminals and repeat offenders.

One proposal recently introduced to a state Senate committee by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, would push for a community supervision program for property crime convicts, much like the Department of Corrections used to do before the program was cut around 2008, amid multiple rounds of budget cuts during the recession.

Judges, meanwhile, contend they’re following the rules handed down by state lawmakers. Politicians wonder where the money for long-term fixes will come from.

“It’s challenging for us to make a reduction when we are doing our part in the front of the system,” said Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl. “How many times do we let someone get arrested or convicted of felonies before we say ‘We need to protect the community from you.’ ”

I got 99 problems, but a Subaru ain’t one

Josh Adams is a logical and straightforward person. But when his car wasn’t in the spot he left it, he didn’t know what to do – this had never happened to him before.

“I just stood there in awe,” he said. “Just beeping at my car to see if I could hear a beep.”

He didn’t hear a beep.

Stolen on a Thursday, he went looking for it on Saturday, just as 30-mph winds whipped through the snow-covered city. His intuition took him to Hillyard – a neighborhood he’d heard from family was particularly ripe for vehicle theft activity.

Within 10 minutes of turning west off Market Street, he spotted it: his dark-blue baby, sitting on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Pittsburg Street, all alone, beat up and bruised, with everything in it taken or broken.

“The closer we got, the louder I screamed,” said Adams. “That’s my car!”

Adams didn’t know it at the time, but the man suspected of stealing his car – caught red-handed and red-hoodied wearing a distinctively eye-popping Nike sweatshirt by a Walmart surveillance camera – was already in jail under suspicion of snatching a different Subaru.

On Feb. 8 – a day after Adams’ Impreza was reported missing and the day before it was located – Christian Normand was stopped after leading police on a slippery and snowy chase through the Hillyard and Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhoods. The latter is one of the most active areas in the city for vehicle thieves.

After running several stop signs and red lights at about 3:30 a.m., police say Normand rammed the 1991 Subaru Legacy he was driving into a Jeep on Empire Avenue, where he lost control and drove into a yard.

He didn’t stop there. After regaining control, he kept going, sometimes at speeds of 45 to 60 mph on four-lane arterials. He eventually was stopped several minutes and miles later on Crestline Street near Illinois Avenue in the Logan neighborhood.

Charging documents indicate that when police told Normand he was under arrest, he said: “I know.” In the pocket of his jeans they found his signature tool: a tine from a metal garden rake.

The next day, an officer on Spokane Police Department’s vehicle theft team interviewed Normand and learned why he wasn’t in custody despite his arrest in September when he was accused of stealing a baited Subaru. Since age 16, he’s been under the watchful eye of police as a known “prolific offender.”

He pleaded guilty on the September charge on Jan. 11, and as part of his deal was ordered to undergo drug treatment. But he told police that on Jan. 23 – one week into treatment – he ran away from the facility. He “could not do it anymore,” officers wrote in arresting documents.

“He told me there were people in there really trying and he was not one of them,” an officer wrote. “He told me he is not ready to get clean and does not want to change his lifestyle right now.”

Property crime won’t do the time

Many working in law enforcement and public safety agree on at least one point: that vehicle theft and property crime are a symptom of a much larger, deeply systemic problem. Notably, drug abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental health, and the simple rush of it all.

“People don’t tend to commit burglaries and other types of property crime unless there’s an underlying reason for it,” said Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who has been active in public safety reform since the county was awarded a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant in 2016. “Property crime goes hand in hand with drug crime.”

In her time as public defender from 1983 to 1989, then in private practice and finally as a judge for 16 years, Moreno has seen and heard it all. The frustration from police. The outcry from residents.

The finger-pointing and blaming, mostly. Property crime trends ebb and flow, and along the way, the same criticisms are levied at county courts and elected officials.

Namely, that judges are too lax on property criminals, to the point where law enforcement officials feel they’re arresting the same group of individuals over and over. Or as Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich puts it: to the point where property crime is “no longer a law enforcement issue.”

“Law enforcement does a great job arresting these people,” he said. “What we have is a system that’s decided we don’t want to hold these people accountable.”

Chief Meidl, who responded to Mayor David Condon’s plan to crackdown on car thieves in 2017 by creating two teams specifically focused on vehicle theft, agreed. He keeps a list of the top 25 chronic offenders in Spokane. They’ve been arrested 172 different times for theft-related reasons, and charged with 1,677 other crimes.

“I would argue that the police department and sheriff’s department are doing their part,” he said. “But when you look at the criminal history, and you look at the sentencing guidelines, they’re getting back out, and you can tell by the quantity of arrests and you can tell by the number of convictions. A very small percentage of our community is going right back to stealing cars.”

But Moreno says it’s simply not a case of the stereotypical bleeding-heart judges pushing for lenient sentences on property criminals. Rather, elected judges are doing what they’re supposed to: follow the rules.

“The court cannot hold someone on a bond that is way, way out of their reach,” she said. “So when you have law enforcement, the sheriff and the chief saying we’re letting people out, we’re not letting people out. We’re following the law.”

Judges are required to release people accused of crimes, unless the court can show the person will commit a violent crime, seek to intimidate a witness or won’t likely to show up to court.

Further complicating the issue, Washington is the only state that does not monitor property criminals after they’re convicted.

Many consider the combination of these two factors, plus Spokane’s low median wage and higher-than-average poverty rate, to be the reason for the city’s historically high property crime and vehicle theft rates. Drug use plays a factor as well.

“I think by and large, most of the arguments around Spokane are joyriding, addiction, and you have those chronic offenders,” said David Makin, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University. “But I think there’s still a lot of unknowns around there.”

‘We are winning’

Sgt. Kurt Vigesaa’s instincts are like a hawk. His eyes like an eagle. His memory like a photograph.

No matter the day, where he’s at, what he’s doing, his focus is on the horizon. Blue car there. License plate here. That Lexus, it looks like something reported stolen two days ago. That truck, it was probably used in a mail theft a few hours ago.

It doesn’t even matter if he’s working. His brain is now hot-wired to keep track of what’s missing and what isn’t.

“It drives my wife crazy,” he said during an afternoon shift, as a blanket of snow fell over the city. “I can’t shut it off.”

As the leader of Spokane’s newly focused vehicle-theft crime team – a rearranging of sorts of the already-existing property crime unit – he starts his 10-hour day first with intelligence.

He and his team of four day-side officers keep a running list of about a dozen recently stolen cars. Then there are the ones on the back burner – those reported stolen that already have been out on the loose a few days. For the night-side team, there’s a similar routine. Different hours, separate leadership, but the same goal.

By 11 a.m., he’s out on the town. His car, an unmarked Dodge Charger, was once a secret to vehicle thieves, but now it’s as synonymous with law-and-order as red and blue.

In any given shift, he’s likely to drive through much of the city. He can make a traffic stop in West Central at noon, check a recent theft in Logan, and be over in Browne’s Addition before the lunch hour is over.

“We do what we do,” he said. “We make our arrests. And we make a guilty arrest.”

It’s a tough job that not many officers want, but the team says their effort is working. Since 2016, according to FBI and Spokane police crime data, vehicle theft rate has fallen year over year, with most recent records showing a 7 percent drop in 2018 compared to 2017.

But Vigesaa often wonders if what they’re doing is enough. Like Meidl, he often sees the same people committing the same crimes. And while he can make an arrest one day of a repeat offender – as was the case with Normand – he might chase the same suspect a few days, weeks or months later.

“Incarceration,” said Vigesaa. “I know that’s not politically correct, but there comes a point when somebody has committed multiple felonies. And they’ve been offered opportunity after opportunity. Then, incarceration is the only that’s going to work.”

Statewide, same problems. Detective Sgt. Jeff Maijala, who supervises the Washington State Patrol’s Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force, said there are only so many times an officer can make an arrest before they start to question the process.

“The biggest challenges is charging,” he said. “The way the courts are going lately, they’re saying they want more information. Most of the prolific auto thieves know exactly what to say.”

With Normand, his most recent arrest and fresh set of charges came after an undercover officer on Vigesaa’s team reviewed surveillance video and was able to develop probable cause in the theft of Adams’ Subaru. This was on top of the arrest in connection with leading police on a wild chase through Spokane.

Now with a prior conviction, and three new charges, he remains an inmate at the Spokane County Jail in lieu of a $75,000 bond – a high amount for a property crime.

“We are winning,” Vigesaa said. “We are reducing vehicle theft. And we will not stop.”

Technology will save us

After so much postulating, hand-wringing and blaming, a select few from Spokane are ready for action. And they want the rest of the state to stand with them.

“I don’t think there’s even a debate,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs, who along with Condon and Meidl, spoke to state legislators earlier this month about a bill that would supervise property crime convicts. “Without supervision and rehabilitation and re-entry, you’re not going to get the change in behavior.”

The proposal Billig is sponsoring would set up a program where a person serving time for vehicle theft or burglary could trade one day in prison for three days in a community supervision program. They also would get help with job training, housing and health care.

Beggs said because the cost of incarceration is roughly three times that of community supervision, it would essentially pay for itself in the long run. The only hurdles he foresees is getting the Legislature to fork over the initial cost of implementation and potential disinterest from convicts – since some people wouldn’t be willing to triple their sentence, even if it means no jail time.

“Jail and prison are about the least effective thing from stopping people from committing crimes,” he said. “We all know it. It’s just a matter of implementing it. We just need help from the state to do it.”

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who supported a similar bill that died in the Legislature last year, said he’s on board with the new proposal, upfront cost and all.

“We think more tools in the toolbox for our local law enforcement on this issue makes sense,” he said. “I understand the frustration, and a lot of it just comes down to money and what can fund priorities.”

Beggs hopes future discussions will include similar pre-trial monitoring practices, rather than simply jail or unmonitored release.

Makin, the WSU professor, says in-home monitoring, such as modern electric bracelets that look no different than a Disneyland MagicBand, are one of the most effective ways to curb repeat offenses.

Last semester, three students in his Crime Prevention Strategies class recommended electronic monitoring to the Spokane Police Department as part of their research into vehicle theft prevention.

The students wrote that compared to the average cost of incarceration per inmate per year – about $31,286 – the $4,500 to $8,500 it would cost for electronic monitoring would be a cheaper alternative, and would help curb recidivism.

The 14-page report was delivered to Meidl’s desk in December.

“Take a burglary as an example,” Makin said. “Their general life course, in terms of standard cycle, is about 100 incidents. They commit about 100 crimes until we catch them. If you pull one chronic offender out, that can have a prolific impact.”

Electronic monitoring could have been used on Normand to ensure he stayed in drug treatment. If he left the facility, law enforcement would probably have known when and where.

Maybe then, a Subaru wouldn’t have been joyridden around town. A Jeep wouldn’t have been damaged. And Josh Adams would still have his longboard, a fully functional windshield, a pair of winter gloves and a working ignition.

“My insurance still hasn’t called me back to tell me where to take it,” he said earlier this month. “I work, I’m a grown man.”

He’s got things do. And no car to take him anywhere.

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