Ben Redburn dropped by to visit a friend at a Birch Avenue home in Warrenton a few weeks ago. Leaving his car door unlocked, he knocked on the front door about 7 p.m., well after sunset.
“I popped in to see how my friend was doing,” Redburn said. “I didn’t even plan to go in.”
But Redburn’s friend invited him inside. When the visit ended around 7:45 p.m., he returned to his car to find his visor down, items scattered about and the glove box open. The thief stole two pocket knives to boot.
Redburn’s case was one of about 100 reported to Warrenton police this fall. In what appears to have been a coordinated effort to steal items from cars, the recent spree began a few weeks into October and peaked in the middle of November. The theft wave crashed a few weeks ago after an arrest, and police are working toward potential charges.
Warrenton Police Chief Mathew Workman, who has led the department since 2008, said he’s seen theft outbreaks that are similar in nature, but not in scale.
“I think this one, by comparison, is a little bit larger,” Workman said. “We’re not even sure we have the full scope of the number of cars and number of people affected.”
Adding to the uncertainty, not every unlawful entry case has been reported. People often alert police only when items of a certain value have been stolen, Workman said.
The department heard anecdotally about other cases where items of lesser value were stolen or a car had obviously been unlawfully entered, but residents did not respond when contacted by police.
Warrenton police upped patrols in November to address the break-ins, which typically took place at night or in the early morning inside unlocked cars.
An officer spotted someone rummaging through a car early in the morning Nov. 7 near Warrenton City Park. After chasing the suspect on foot and establishing a perimeter for nearly an hour, police lost sight of the person.
Less than a week later, Tony Murray received a call from his wife, Shelly. As she was driving to work, Shelly noticed that the glove box in her car had been opened and an expensive flashlight was missing.
He reviewed security footage from the eight cameras attached to their home on Cedar Avenue. The couple bought the cameras after someone entered Shelly’s car five years ago.
The video showed a man in a light-colored sweatshirt with his hood up approach the driveway. He tried to open the door of Murray’s son’s truck before making his way to Shelly’s car, which was unlocked. As he paced away from the scene 30 seconds later, the man tried to open the door of another car parked on the street before disappearing from view.
Murray called police later in the day and found out they already had a potential suspect in custody. He had been arrested on parole violation warrants, though he denies connection to the thefts and charges have not been filed. Police are searching for more evidence and pursuing leads to others who may have been involved.
In Redburn’s case, more expensive items like a phone charger, a tactical flashlight and a bottle of cologne were in the car. Instead, just two cheap pocket knives were gone.
“They passed up a whole bunch of stuff to take junk,” Redburn said.
Items police have recovered include sunglasses, phones, vaporizers, cigarettes, change, hunting equipment and ammunition. While not certain what the motives were, Workman said the thieves may have been searching for items that could be easily sold — and not identifiable by the owner — in exchange for drugs. He also believes the people involved are locals.
“We have a huge problem right now with drug addiction and drug-related crimes,” he said.
For Murray, the timing was telling. His surveillance footage revealed that the thefts took place after 4:20 a.m. Neighbors on the street start bustling around 5 a.m. on workdays.
“He had to have known somehow,” Murray said. “They must be career criminals.”
Seaside Police Lt. Bruce Holt said thieves typically avoid unnecessary risks.
“Opportunists usually see something in the car and say, ‘Holy smokes, his door is unlocked,’” Holt said.
As authorities continue to investigate the theft wave, the venue will likely switch from residential neighborhoods to shopping mall parking lots.
Thefts inside cars parked near stores are an annual holiday tradition for law enforcement. Workman said that while unlawful car entries and thefts typically rise this time of year, he does not foresee the recent spree becoming an aggravating factor. The criminals involved may have been deterred by the recent arrest.
“I think it got out that we were doing more patrols and ramping things up,” Workman said.
Nonetheless, police expect thefts to rise again as people leave holiday presents in their cars, unlocked, and hurry from shop to shop.
“People go shopping and they’re ready to fill up their cars,” Holt said. “If they’re wrapped, it’s even more intriguing.”
Whether at home or elsewhere, police ask residents to lock their doors and report any suspicious activity.
For their part, the Murrays are looking into installing $600 worth of new security cameras. It will mark their third security camera upgrade since moving to the area five years ago.