Ripped-Off Rides

Santa Fe sees spike in stolen cars

Sandra Brice left her home on the eastside of Santa Fe to walk her dog and, passing the carport, she noticed something amiss: Her car was gone.

With no broken glass or any sign of a break-in, “It’s like it was taken by aliens,” Brice tells SFR.

Coincidentally, it was the same March day as a memorial service for Santa Fe Police Officer Robert Duran, who was killed earlier that month while pursuing a stolen vehicle—believed to be involved in a kidnapping—headed the wrong way on Interstate 25 in Santa Fe County. The driver in that case, Jeannine Jaramillo, was later charged with two counts of first-degree murder as well as receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle—a white Chevy Malibu allegedly taken from a woman in Las Vegas.

Brice’s missing 2014 Subaru would also become the target of a chase, she says. Authorities recovered it in Rio Arriba County last week after law enforcement noticed a man driving erratically. The driver was taken into custody after he allegedly attempted to evade police and it resulted in damages to the car.

Prior to Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputies finding the car, she had considered it a lost cause. In the meantime, it took several days to find a rental that was covered by her insurance. Eventually, her coverage allowed her to get a replacement vehicle.

As for her old ride, Brice wants nothing to do with it.

“I don’t want to see it or touch it again,” she says. “It’s a feeling of invasion when someone comes on your property, takes something of yours and wrecks it.”

Brice’s was one in a string of recent motor vehicle thefts around Santa Fe, where local police note a spike in stolen car cases this year. In the first five months of 2022, the Santa Fe Police Department recorded 263 car thefts. That’s compared to 136 such incidents by the month of May last year—an increase of 93%. SFPD says it has improved its data collection and reporting procedures since SFR found discrepancies last year, and the auto theft figures are solid.

The local uptick matches a national trend: The National Insurance Crime Bureau found that between 2019 and 2021, thefts increased by 16.5%.

Many law enforcement agencies in the region, including in Santa Fe, are struggling to fill their ranks. With fewer officers on patrol, departments have been forced to work together in canvassing the state for stolen cars. This cooperation has given authorities a clear picture of what’s going on: Cars stolen from Santa Fe are not likely to stay in Santa Fe. The same goes for vehicles taken in all of Northern New Mexico’s cities and towns. Thieves are using them for travel, possibly to commit other crimes and abandoning them.

An increase in vehicle thefts and carjackings can impact communities and insurance rates and leave victims with unexpected costs. When Rebecca Garcia’s car was stolen in April, for instance, it cost her about $1,000 to get it back. The hardships didn’t stop there; Garcia used the vehicle to take her kids to school and for other family necessities.

She had loaned the car to her son when it was stolen off of Airport Road. For about a month, she had to borrow cars or get rides from family, during which time she felt police could have done more to track down her missing Saturn Astra.

“I wasn’t too happy with Santa Fe,” she tells SFR. “The police told me, ‘We’re not out there looking for your car. If we come across it, we’ll take it into custody.’ We couldn’t be without a car. It’s a shame that it was reported from here and it was found in another state.”

The vehicle eventually turned up in Texas. It’s common for stolen vehicles to come back with damage, but to Garcia’s surprise, hers did not.

“It was well taken care of by the thief,” she says with a laugh. “He drove it like he was planning on keeping it forever. He even had an air freshener of El Chapo. I thought that was hilarious—only the biggest drug lord in prison.”

Police Chief Paul Joye acknowledges the increase, noting the department meets with agencies from Albuquerque, New Mexico State Police and other area partners to discuss what each of them is seeing. Multiple factors have contributed to the rise, he says.

“Obviously, in 2021 we were still dealing with COVID and I think people were home more than they are now,” he tells SFR. “So I think there was less opportunity, perhaps.”

Historically, increases in car thefts were linked to the black market, the idea being they were stolen to be sold for parts or resold across state lines. Joye says the city has seen a spike in catalytic converter thefts, too. Just last month, Santa Fe police arrested three men on suspicion of stealing the exhaust emission control devices. The converters are often sought for their precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium that help reduce an engine’s toxicity.

It’s becoming apparent to law enforcement, though, that stolen cars are more often used for joy rides and getaway vehicles. That could account for the 47% recovery rate Joye says his department has racked up this year.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza has also noticed the phenomenon, telling SFR, “People aren’t stealing cars to go to doctors’ appointments.”

“We don’t have information that there’s intricate chop shop rings—that they’re taking them out of state or the country,” he says. “When we do recover them, most of the time they end up in a possible pursuit situation. I think the majority of them are being used and driven around to perpetrate other crimes and then dumped.”

To make matters worse, agencies haven’t noticed patterns with the types of vehicle or the locations from which they’re stolen.

“The motor vehicle thefts seem spread out,” says Tino Alva, criminal information analyst with SFPD. “Unfortunately, there’s not a consistency, so that sort of throws us a curveball. It’s not necessarily always residential; it can be commercial. It goes back and forth.”

According to NICB, Albuquerque ranked sixth nationally in 2020 for the number of vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. That was out of 380 metropolitan statistical areas. Las Cruces was ranked 78th on the list, with Santa Fe coming in at 93rd. Ford’s full-size pickup truck was the No. 1 vehicle stolen that year in New Mexico, followed by Chevrolet’s full-size pickup and Hyundai’s Elantra.

There’s more than one way to steal a car, but many vanish because they were left running while unattended, according to law enforcement. Agencies often see spikes during the winter months when people go inside their home as they wait for their ride to warm up.

That’s why owners shouldn’t leave their car “puffing,” Carole Walker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Insurance Association, tells SFR.

“It’s actually a term that the street gangs coined, because they would go around looking for the telltale puffing of exhaust pipes,” she says. “They’re sophisticated. They drive around in groups with another vehicle, steal a vehicle, and the other driver takes off.”

The car from Las Vegas in the fatal Santa Fe crash was stolen while warming up unattended in February. A similar scenario unfolded when someone swiped Dayana Salinas’ Dodge Dart from the Paseo Del Sol Apartments in March. She walked outside and noticed an unfamiliar truck in the parking lot. Not thinking much of it, she started her car, locked the door and headed back inside to say goodbye to her boyfriend.

“It took me like three minutes,” she tells SFR. “When I went outside my car was gone. The first thing I [did] was look to see if that truck was there.”

It wasn’t.

Police arrived, took a report and it wasn’t long until the car was found. Three hours later, Salinas got a call that the vehicle was abandoned on Cerrillos Road, likely because it had run out of gas. However, her problems didn’t end there.

The joyriders damaged the interior of the vehicle and nicked some change. The real inconvenience came when she discovered the thieves took the key with them. The dealership she purchased it from told her she could get a replacement key, but it would be months because they’d have to order it.

Unable to wait that long, in addition to the concern that a new key wouldn’t make her car any more secure, Salinas chose to bite the bullet and buy a new car. Just a couple months later, her neighbor’s wheels were stolen from the apartment complex parking lot, too.

“Thankfully they found the guy,” she says, “But, you know, that doesn’t solve the damages that they do to our cars, because we work so hard for the things that we have so somebody can just come and do horrible stuff to our cars.”

Authorities say summer months offer opportunities for thieves, too, as drivers will let their cars cool down before leaving. It’s a quality chance for would-be thieves looking for an easy target, and in times of economic hardship, there seem to be more offenders—an issue Walker anticipated.

“We saw it with the pandemic, with the recession of 2008 and now we’ve seen inflation go up,” she says. “We have work shortages and unemployment. We see property crimes increase, along with violent crimes, and auto theft is one of those crimes.”

When more cars are stolen, the impacts ripple out. While there are a number of factors that affect car insurance rates—driving records, type of vehicle, potential for damage by hail or flooding and more—vehicle thefts also influence the cost of coverage. Areas with a higher likelihood of auto theft tend to have higher insurance rates.

“If you’re not a victim directly of auto theft, you’re still a victim of auto theft, because it affects what you pay for car insurance,” Walker says. “So as auto theft rates go up, you see auto [insurance] rates go up…Unfortunately, we are seeing car insurance premiums go up across the board nationally and in states like New Mexico.”

Auto thefts aren’t the sole contributing factor, but car insurance rates have increased steadily for nearly a decade, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The average cost of coverage in the US was $789 in 2010. By 2019, the figure had reached $1,070. In New Mexico, on average, drivers pay around $1,200 for insurance.

Comprehensive auto insurance is optional in New Mexico. Car owners may choose to drop this type of coverage for older vehicles, but it could come at a price if their wheels go missing unexpectedly.

“You’ll have to pay that replacement or repair of a vehicle out of pocket, if you don’t have comprehensive coverage in New Mexico,” Walker says. “So just be financially prepared. With the high crime rate of auto theft, the one way you can protect yourself is to have the right insurance in place, and that’s optional comprehensive coverage.”

In 2022, the FBI changed one of the theft categories for its annual Uniform Crime Report, to which Santa Fe police submit crime data. The category of theft from a motor vehicle was folded into larceny/theft offenses. So as the city has seen spikes in larceny—31% compared to last year—it stems from that reporting change. The department’s updated reporting method comes after homicides and the majority of other crimes SFPD reported for the FBI’s 2020 Uniform Crime Report didn’t match other records. Joye says SFPD wasn’t the only agency having reporting issues at the time, but the crime data now used in regular reports to city officials is what’s being given to the FBI.

Leaving possessions out in the open is asking for a break-in. Alva says hikers will return to their car after a day on the trail to find their windows smashed and purse missing. Keeping cars in well-lit areas and without spare keys in them is just one of his suggestions.

“Be cognitive of your environment, especially if it’s a place you go every day,” he says. “Don’t become comfortable with where you’re going. You’ve got to still have that mindset to watch your environment and personal possessions.”

As for Santa Fe’s watchmen, there are no units solely dedicated to auto theft in either the sheriff’s office or police department. License plate scanners are one tool that could help them locate more stolen vehicles, but at the moment neither the sheriff’s office nor the police department uses them. Joye tells SFR he’s interested in exploring the technology, whether devices in a patrol car that automatically scan license plates as an officer drives by, or stationary readers that can be placed in various locations.

Police can’t look into every license plate on every vehicle, though, says Steven Cerasia, senior officer with SFPD. Officers also have a number of different calls to respond to, some of which take precedence over a stolen vehicle.

“A missing child, that’s absolutely going to take priority,” Cerasia tells SFR. “Any crime that’s violent in nature, like an aggravated battery in progress where there’s a weapon identified, that will take priority as well.”

The fact a vehicle is stolen isn’t enough to initiate a pursuit if a driver won’t stop, because it creates too much danger for the public, Cerasia says.

“If you have someone carjacked at gun or knife point, there’s a chance that pursuit is going to continue on,” he says. “Generally, there’s going to have to be a violent felony attached to that vehicle. Then you’re going to authorize pursuit.”

When vehicles are stolen, they’re entered into a license plate database. This allows officers and deputies in the area to sometimes determine when a car is stolen by running a suspect plate through the system. At SFPD, the property crimes sergeant evaluates each case for “solvability,” Joye says, before assigning a case to the unit’s detectives.

Cars and trucks taken from Albuquerque are winding up in Santa Fe; stolen cars from Santa Fe are being recovered in Española, or Las Vegas and beyond. Just recently a stolen car was found in Bloomfield, almost a three-hour drive from the city. And with rising costs and expenses, low budgets and a decreased presence in highly populated areas, it makes inter-agency communication even more vital.

“It’s difficult to pull resources from one area to put into another,” Joye says. “In lieu of that, until I get to the point where I’m comfortable with our staffing levels to be able to start doing more things like [standing up a dedicated auto theft unit], I want to make sure that we are being good partners with our other departments—what are they seeing, what are we seeing, do we have consistent methods of theft or entry?”

Officials want a good partnership with residents, too. While the phrase “see something, say something,” might be old, it still rings true. Joye and Mendoza tell SFR that the more information law enforcement has to go on, the better the chances of recovering a stolen vehicle.

“At the very least, make those calls and let us know when there is someone [suspicious] in the area,” Joye says.

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