Number of vehicle thefts on the rise compared to last year

As Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy Charles Hardy made his way up 80th Terrace South in suburban Lantana one afternoon last month, he spotted the two men running for the stolen truck.

One of the men revved the engine before flooring it, Hardy said in his report.

The deputy fired shots, and a chase ensued before other deputies caught a prolific father-son team of alleged car thieves - 36-year-old Justin Lawrence Heffernan and 19-year-old Justin Lawrence Heffernan Jr.

"They were one of the groups out there stealing trucks," sheriff's Lt. Scott Smith said. "They were stripping them and selling parts."

They are also indicative of what has been a troubling trend over the past year for local law enforcement.

From Palm Beach Gardens to Wellington to Boca Raton, there was a slight increase in the number of vehicle thefts last year - the only major crime category in the county to do so, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's 2012 Uniform Crime Report.

And while the rise was a mere 0.9 percent, it marks the first time in nearly a decade that more vehicles were reported stolen in the county than the year before, the state statistics show.

Area law enforcement officials caution that it's too soon to determine whether the one-year rise reflects an emerging trend.

They acknowledge, however, that some specific incidents have been troubling.

Vehicles are being targeted for a variety of reasons, officials say. Sometimes the thefts are crimes of opportunity. In addition, stolen vehicles are useful in the commission of other crimes.

"Really, what we see a lot of is older-type Honda Civics," Smith said. "They're being stolen and the cars are being completely stripped out.

"The Ford trucks, the 200 and 300 series, there seems to be a trend there with those," he added.

"And then, I don't know why, but the old Dodge Caravans (are problematic)."

Larry Foreman, an auto theft detective with the West Palm Beach police, said thefts of pickups have become a growing concern over the past year and a half.

In some instances, the thieves are interested in interior parts that can be stripped out of the vehicle and sold, he said. In some cases, they've been used by thieves to ram into buildings in order to steal ATMs.

"It's not their truck, so they don't care (if it gets damaged)," said Foreman, whose agency, along with the sheriff's office, Palm Beach Gardens police and Delray Beach police, is part of an auto theft task force.

The sheriff's office is investigating whether three recent attempted ATM thefts are related.

In the most recent incident, reported on May 7, thieves driving a stolen Ford F-150 pickup smashed through the window of a Loxahatchee Walgreens store while attempting to steal a cash machine, the sheriff's office said.

ATM thefts are "the hot topic," Smith said. "We're addressing that situation as we go, and it's so early I really don't want to comment too much about it.

"But yes," he said, "they're using them for the ATMs. They're smashing into buildings, right through the glass doors, so they have more protection. It's easier to get away."

This year, the sheriff's office has seen a decline in auto thefts, Smith said. Through May 8, there had been 523 thefts reported, compared with 543 at the same time in 2011 .

But West Palm Beach, which saw a decrease in auto thefts from 2010 to 2011, is slightly up this year - with 40 thefts through the end of March compared with 31 a year ago, Foreman said.

The disparity based on geography is one reason, Smith said, that the auto theft task force meets at least once a week to discuss trends emerging across the county.

"With our technology today, the meetings that we're having, we're able to spot trends much quicker than we were in the past," he said. "We're able to react quicker than we were before. Our data now is more real-time."

The most popular models for vehicle thieves are about 5 years old or more. That's due in large part to a "chip key" technology in newer cars that have made them more difficult to steal.

"Once you plug it in, (the chip) reads to the master board in the car and it recognizes that specific key for that car," Smith said.

Anti-theft devices, such as LoJack and GPS units, also have been helpful in allowing officers to track and locate stolen vehicles.

But car thieves are taking advantage of crimes of opportunity .

"What we still see a lot of times is people leaving keys in their cars," Smith said. "As much as you try to get it out there: Don't leave your keys in the car. Don't leave your windows and cars unlocked."

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