Task force targets car thieves

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policestarWATERBURY — Law enforcement agencies have created an informal task force that they hope will cut down on what has become a major problem of vehicles being swiped throughout the area.

State’s Attorney Maureen Platt formed the group after hearing of a series of car thefts in Waterbury and surrounding towns, including Naugatuck and Prospect, that had been carried out by juveniles.

Dozens of cars, spanning all makes and models, have been stolen in recent months, including high-end, newer vehicles such as an Audi and a Porsche. In nearly all the cases, owners have left the keys in the vehicles.

The uptick began in the spring and has continued to be a problem.

“I felt it deserved immediate attention,” Platt said. “We need to have a coordinated response. We need to take these cases seriously.”

Police have found the thefts are primarily being carried out by juveniles and teenagers, who in several cases have used stolen cars to troll city streets and carry out additional burglaries of parked cars.

Car theft isn’t only a matter of property crime, Platt said. A juvenile behind the wheel of a stolen car could lead police on a chase, which in turn could have “horrible” results for people involved in the pursuit and possibly pedestrians, she said.

The nightmare almost came to pass last month.

City police believe a 15-year-old city boy stole a Volkswagen in Waterbury, drove it to Torrington, then swapped that stolen ride for an Audi. Police spotted the boy in the stolen Audi, but he refused to stop and led authorities on a chase on Route 8 where speeds exceeded 100 mph.

The pursuit was broken off, but police identified the teen and detained him later that day on Crosby Street in Waterbury. Acting Deputy Police Chief Christopher Corbett said investigators suspect the boy was involved in at least a dozen car thefts.

Only days later, an off-duty Waterbury police officer, Justin Stephens, spotted a 2003 Cadillac CTS on Southmayd Road that had been reported stolen from Meriden. Police say an 18-year-old, Calvin Cooper, of 248 Wood St., was behind the wheel and took off when officers tried to stop him.

Police eventually brought the car to a halt near the Brass Mill Center mall, where they arrested Cooper, Ernest Wallace, 18, and a 15-year-old boy. Each teenager had a set of keys to another stolen car in his pockets. Those stolen rides were later found on Southmayd Road.

Police are preparing additional arrest warrants for the teens in connection with each of the cars that were stolen.

Detectives Kevin Howles and Randy Watts were instrumental in putting together the investigation that traced the thefts to the juveniles arrested so far, Corbett said.

“Since these arrests have been made, we’re starting to see a decrease (in thefts),” Corbett said.

Police in Naugatuck started seeing a spike in car thefts in April. Since then, 33 cars have been swiped, primarily after owners left the vehicles running with the keys in them. Borough police investigated 21 reported car thefts during that same time last year.

Most newer cars come equipped with anti-theft technology that prevents them from being driven unless the key, which is specially coded to the car itself, is nearby or in the ignition. That sophisticated technology is useless if owners leave the key inside the vehicle.

Lt. Bryan Cammarata, Naugatuck police spokesman, said in many of the reported thefts, car thieves have waited near gas stations or convenience stores to target victims.

“They stand outside and wait for an opportunity to do this,” said Cammarata. “They’ll take the car and find a use for it.”

Stolen cars can be scrapped, sold on the streets or used to haul drugs, he said.

Even people who haven’t had their cars stolen may feel the financial pinch as insurance costs can increase in areas plagued with car thefts.

Platt said representatives from police departments in the area met early in August to share information about the spike in thefts. The group plans on continuing to swap information, such as the street names of suspects and locations where the cars were ditched, with other departments that are investigating car thefts.

Prosecutors are available 24 hours, seven days a week and are giving “special attention” to theft cases when they come to court, Platt said.

Supervisory State’s Attorney John Davenport said suspects found guilty of stealing multiple cars will be treated “much differently” than a defendant who takes his mother’s car for a joyride.

“We’re trying to have an organized approach to this,” he said.

Alleged car thieves appear to be showing a brazen disregard about getting arrested.

Abou Kante, 22, was detained in August after police said he and three others were spotted trying to run from a stolen car that was stopped near Cooke and Grove streets.

The car, a 2013 Hyundai, was reported stolen earlier that night. As Kante was being served with an arrest warrant, police say he laughed and joked that his friends had driven the stolen car to pick him up after he bonded out of jail.

“We got the other set of keys stashed anyway,” he told police. “We’ll get it back.”