WIS Investigates: Police use bait to catch thieves breaking into - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

WIS Investigates: Police use bait to catch thieves breaking into vehicles

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It's the most common crime in Columbia: car break-ins make up more than half the city's crime reports.

It's a crime of opportunity and now Columbia police are going undercover with a special tool to catch thieves in action.

Within minutes, a thief can get into a car and walk away with what's inside, despite being caught by home surveillance in the Lake Katherine neighborhood.

"You do feel violated," said break-in victim Marwan Marzagao. "This is your home. This is your personal property. This is where your family is and some random individual is just essentially taking liberties."

There have been 14 break-ins in the last three weeks, 40 since October, in neighborhoods around Lake Katherine.  As many as 200 residents met Monday night with police.

"We've been able to collect forensic evidence," said Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago.  "We've been able to get good eyewitness descriptions, and in one case, in a burglary we believe those individuals were involved in that as well."

"That's sort of the unnerving part, his comfort level with what he's doing and lack of worry, you don't really see him sort of looking over his shoulder, he doesn't seem to be really concerned, it's just another day at work maybe," said Marzagao.

Residents are unnerved.

"We left our last neighborhood because of crime and in between my office building and the neighborhood around have been hit, that's more property crime," said Brian Boyer.

The suspect's doing nearly the same thing in Five Points: a quick turn of a screwdriver and the window shatters.  Belongings inside the vehicle, gone.

"They're willing to break your window for a couple of dollars, just to get that change, to get that laptop," said CPD Sgt. Daniel Wesley.

Neighbors called for it.

"I'd like to see more undercover work," said Boyer. "These guys aren't going to be caught patrolling in a well-lit vehicle."

Little did they know, as they slept undercover officers were already hiding in back yards and wooded areas watching for the suspects. WIS went along as their bait car was deployed on Milford Road.

Columbia Police are doing several special operations in an effort to catch these thieves. They had as many as six officers watching that bait car and another ten in that area watching the surrounding neighborhood.  Unfortunately, we came up empty. But these are the efforts police are going to catch these thieves.

Because of the continuing investigation we're not showing you the bait car. But we can show you one used in a daylight sting right across from the Sumter Street transfer bus station.

Here's how it works: actors set up the distraction calling attention to the vehicle, then leave it, windows down, several items inside worthy of taking.  The vehicle is one of several outfitted with cameras and common items we can't show you.

Nearby, watching in several vehicles, are investigators and us, giving investigators all the evidence they'll need in court.

"We usually get a conviction because we have everything's there to show that this person has committed this crime," said Sgt. Wesley, who says it's not entrapment.

"It's not more than what average citizens do daily.  At one point, I remember last year we had officers go out in the Vista, we walked and we just looked at cars that had things sitting in plain, just basic things."

The vehicle is taken several places from convenience stores to random lots, and along Two Notch Road, suddenly, there's interest.

"He walked and he scoped it out, but I think the fact that there were a lot of customers around, you know auto breakers don't like to be identified, the best time for them to break into a vehicle when they feel they are assured no one is going to see them," said Sgt. Wesley.

The man was very suspicious of our vehicle, parked not far away.
"He walked away, went to another location, he came back, stood by the vehicle, still didn't feel comfortable, so he walked away at that point," Sgt. Wesley said.

The cameras inside and police watching the onlookers gives investigators valuable intelligence.

"You see that person walking by that vehicle, you know staring at it without turning their head because they don't want everybody to notice that they're staring at the vehicle, you see that first hand," said Sgt. Wesley.

Its a crime of opportunity, especially when car doors are left unlocked.

"Don't make yourself an easy target," Sgt. Wesley said. "Leave nothing of any value, even if you don't think it's that valuable, it's just a bag there's nothing in it, don't leave anything, any laptops, your GPS, take the GPS down, take it inside. If you're not using it take it inside."

The thieves are most often repeat offenders.

"We go back and look at their past record to see if they've been convicted of auto break-ins in the past and try to shoot for stricter penalties and fines to get that situation dealt with," said Sgt. Wesley.

People who live in Lake Katherine are now working together to catch the thieves. Residents expressed concerns police haven't always been as vigilant, after taking a report, never returning to collect evidence.

"I think that was the big discouraging part where it was reported, there was a report taken and then, I don't think the subsequent steps where taken where you really had some potentially good information to try and identify somebody," said Marzagao.

But police say in many instances, residents didn't report the crime, especially if cars were just rifled through and nothing was taken.

"It doesn't hurt to get the report," said Santiago. "It allows us to gather the facts. I can crunch the numbers and I can start finding suspect information."

Both residents and police are concerned car break-ins could escalate.

"I'm so concerned there's going to be a mission creep where the cars that have been targeted at some point that well is going to run dry and the criminals are going to look for homes," said Boyer.

So they're putting a price on these thieves' heads.

"The neighborhood has come together and they're willing to offer a reward for the arrest and conviction of these individuals, so maybe the message is the neighborhood is willing to put up to a thousand dollars in reward, maybe that's a big deterrent," said Marzagao.

It's a cost they're willing to pay to regain some security and turn the tables on whoever is targeting them.

Neither time we were out with the vehicle did police catch any suspects, although investigators tell us vehicles used in conjunction with SLED have caught thieves in action.  Police hope thieves see this report and think twice before they break into that next vehicle. They want thieves to know they're targeting them.

We know these crimes often follow specific patterns. The suspects committing these crimes follow the same methods again and again.

Here's what we know after looking at the Columbia Police Department's crime data.  The analysis shows the crimes happen most often on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  The most popular time of year for these crimes is May and June, and during the holiday season. 

Far and away the most popular time these crimes occur between 10:00 and midnight followed by 4:00 to 10:00, and then overnight.  Police say even putting items in your trunk, out of sight, is no longer safe.

"Even the trunk of your vehicle is not that safe anymore because your newer, modern vehicles have trunk release buttons, so if they're watching you put these items in the back of your SUV or back of your car, they can just get in your car, hit that trunk release and they have access to all of your merchandise," said Sgt. Wesley.

According to the police department's raids online information, cars parked on the street or highway are the biggest target for thieves, but coming in a close second are vehicles in the driveway or carport at home, followed by those left in a parking lot or parking garage. 

Thieves are taking electronics: GPS, cell phones, hone chargers, loose change.  In some cases they've taken sunglasses and left behind handguns.

Click here for more statistics on auto break-ins in Columbia.

Click here to report a crime.

Click here to report an auto break-in or theft.

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