“Look at what I just found,” Frank Harvey said to his wife as he held up a pair of lacy purple underwear.
Hunched over a black trash bag, Michele Harvey spun round and stood, coming eye level with the lingerie. “Oh, good Lord, Fred, eew, that’s creepy,” she said.
The panties didn’t belong to her, nor did the other clothes, the bicycle tires, the gas cans or the bag of trash that she and Frank pulled out of their car on a recent afternoon. The items were left behind by the person who stole their Hyundai Sonata.
The couple was able to crack a few jokes, but it took Michele Harvey more than a week before she could bring herself to perform the task after the car was recovered behind a north Modesto business. That car was her personal space, and someone violated it.
“Sometimes vehicle theft is seen as just a property crime, but it has a big impact on every person who gets their car stolen,” said Sgt. Tony Dominguez, supervisor of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force. “I don’t care if it’s a ’91 or a 2016, it’s that person’s vehicle, it’s that person’s transportation to work, to take their kids to school, that’s what they use to make their life happen. … Someone comes into your vehicle, it is intruding into your privacy.”
Every month, hundreds of cars are stolen in Stanislaus County. Modesto has topped the list of auto thefts per capita probably for as long as there’s been a list. And behind every stolen vehicle report is a victim who has to rely on others to get around or scrimp and scrape to repair or replace their vehicle.
Dominguez said most stolen cars eventually are recovered because the thieves abandon them after joyriding, after committing another crime, or after taking from them anything they can sell, often targeting work vehicles with expensive tools.
Oscar Garcia, who works as a subcontractor installing floors, said his van was stolen twice last month. The first time, it was recovered within days, the second time, within a few hours. Both times, $4,500 worth of tools were taken.
Dominguez investigated a similar case recently, but unlike Garcia, the victim was an employee of a company so the tools and vehicle did not belong to him. He was suspended for a week, Dominguez said.
Garcia is out about $10,000 after buying all his tools twice. He hasn’t been reimbursed yet by his insurance company, which he said is still holding out hope the tools will be recovered.
Many people never get reimbursed for the things that are taken or damaged, for the car that is never recovered or for the exorbitant towing and storage fees because they only have liability insurance.
It can be hard to justify full coverage on older cars, but those are the cars that most often are stolen. Seven of the top 10 most stolen cars in Stanislaus County were built in the 1990s.
Modesto resident Stoney Leal’s 1998 Honda Civic is second on that list. She knows this, which is why she uses a steering wheel lock.
But in late July, she was preoccupied when she parked at Doctors Medical Center and left The Club on the floorboard. Her grandmother was being taken off life support and put on comfort care that day; she had inoperable lung cancer that had spread to her pancreas.
Three days later, Leal’s car was found a few blocks away in McHenry Village. Leal later learned it had been dumped there the day it was stolen. The battery was drained and the ignition has been jimmied with a screwdriver.
Leal is a single mother of two girls who works four part-time jobs. She had to borrow the $300 from friends and family to get her car out of the tow yard. Since then, family has helped her get a new battery and fix the ignition, but she still needs to save several hundred dollars to have the locks re-keyed.
The Harveys also need to buy some new parts for their Hyundai – two tires and a headlight – but couldn’t afford it right away after paying the tow and storage fees.
Still, Michele Harvey said they are blessed that they were able to pay the $300 fee and that a friend is lending them a pickup truck in the meantime.
That’s not the case for one of Frank Harvey’s customers. Harvey’s a cab driver and met Rebecca Castillo in June when she started taking a cab home from work after her Mazda Protege was stolen in front of a friend’s house.
She said her car was located when she was out of town for several days for a family function.
By the time she got to the tow yard, the storage fees had amounted to several hundred dollars, which Castillo said was more than the car was worth, so she gave it up to the tow company, which would auction it off.
She now takes a bus to work in Turlock from her home in west Modesto. Castillo’s formerly 30-minute commute now takes about an hour and 15 minutes if she times it correctly with the two buses she has to take. On the nights she has to work late, she will take the last bus from Turlock to the downtown transit center, which means she will miss the last bus from there to west Modesto at 7:15 p.m. On those occasions, she takes a cab because she doesn’t feel safe walking alone at night.
Many victims feel like they are victimized twice – first when they get that sinking feeling as they discover their car is missing, and second when they dish out hundreds of dollars in tow and storage fees to get it back.
Dominguez said he understands that and he and the StanCATT officers try to wait for the victim to come pick up the car.
But he points out that StanCATT’s sole function is to bust car thieves and recover stolen cars, so they have more leeway than a patrol officer to wait for the victim. Sometimes vehicles are abandoned in cities other than that from which they were stolen and a patrol officer can’t wait for an extended period for the owner to arrive.
Modesto police spokeswoman Heather Graves said it is the department’s procedure to utilize all possible avenues to contact the owner and release the vehicle in the field when circumstances permit. But if the car is not drivable due to damage or it’s a busy day and more pressing calls are stacking up while the officer waits, they have it towed.
Dominguez stressed that the vehicles are not being impounded but rather “held for safekeeping.” Once an officer locates a stolen vehicle, he is responsible for it and can’t simply leave it so that the owner can collect it later. It could be burglarized, vandalized or stolen again.
When victims do get their cars back, some don’t even want them anymore because of the condition they are in or because they can’t shake that feeling of being violated every time they get in the car.
When Chrissy Mahnke’s Honda Accord was found two weeks after it was stolen from her driveway, it didn’t look like the same car.
The thief used several shades of yellow and white spray paint to cover the once-green car. The stereo had been swapped out and there were three other likely stolen stereos in the trunk. There were clothes all over the backseat, gas cans, jewelry and mail containing several people’s personal information, as well as drug paraphernalia.
“It was weird to see this guy was possibly living in there; it made me wonder what he was doing in the car,” Mahnke said. She said the car smelled dirty and it bothered her that the thief likely had been smoking methamphetamine in it.
There was also a doctor’s note in the car with a man’s name on it. She found the man on social media and believes he is the same person who was captured on her security cameras stealing the car, which took him less than a minute.
A few weeks later, the man was caught driving another stolen Accord, a year-newer model than Mahnke’s. When his booking photo appeared in the weekend auto theft suspect roundup in The Modesto Bee, Mahnke assumed he’d been arrested for stealing her car. She went to every one of his court appearances until the day of his sentencing, when she learned it was for the theft of a different car.
“Every time I watch that video, it makes me sick,” Mahnke said.
She wants him to be held accountable for stealing her car as well, to add time to his one-year jail sentence.
But Graves said it is difficult to identify the person in the video and paperwork with the man’s name on it isn’t enough to put him behind the wheel.
The doctor’s note was among a variety of paperwork with different names on it, like in the Harveys’ car. Graves said it’s common to find stolen mail and other stolen items in recovered cars.
After going to court and getting no resolution in her case, Mahnke just wants to sell the car and move on.
Dominguez recommends people get anti-theft devices like The Club, park in a garage if possible or a well-lit area, and avoid leaving valuables in your car.
But no precaution can take away the entitlement of these thieves. Whether driven by drug addiction or greed, the crime continues to plague our county.
“I don’t understand what gives these people the right to just take everybody else’s things,” Frank Harvey said. “I have done nothing my entire life but work. Every damn thing I ever had I’ve worked for, and for someone to just come along and take it …”
By the numbers
- Each year there are thousands of vehicles stolen in Stanislaus County, and Modesto had the highest number of auto thefts per capita in 2015.
- Last year 3,948 vehicles were stolen in Stanislaus County; 2,925 in 2014; and 3,424 in 2013.
- From Jan. 1 through the end of August, 2,632 vehicles were stolen – 370 of them in August alone. That compares with 2,577 for the same eight months in 2015, with 262 in August that year.
Top 10 targets
Most law enforcement agencies give away free steering wheel locks to people who own cars on this top 10 most stolen list:
1. Honda Accord (1996)
2. Honda Civic (1998)
3. Toyota Camry (1991)
4. Chevrolet full-size pickup (2003)
5. Acura Integra (1994)
6. Ford full-size pickup (2006)
7. Toyota Corolla (2013)
8. Nissan Sentra (1994)
9. Nissan Altima (1997)
10. Nissan Maxima (1996)