Auto thefts rise sharply

Po­lice task force hop­ing to stymie ‘ brazen’ thieves

West Hawaii Today - - Front Page - BY JOHN BUR­NETT

Auto thefts have long been a con­cern on the Big Is­land. As of late, how­ever, court doc­u­ments de­scrib­ing some of th­ese crimes have nar­ra­tives that seem to be lifted from the script of a made-for-TV movie.

In one case, a 29-yearold hitch­hiker, Ma­son Beck, al­legedly used a car­pen­ter’s nail gun to stage a car­jack­ing in Puna.

In an­other, a 19-year-old man, Chris­tian Oliv­era, is ac­cused of steal­ing a car at gun­point in Kalopa and then go­ing on a spree that in­cludes 13 counts of unau­tho­rized con­trol of a stolen ve­hi­cle.

In a third case, where the sus­pect was still at large as of Fri­day, po­lice re­ceived a re­port of a two-ve­hi­cle crash in Pepeekeo in­volv­ing a sedan and a Toy­ota truck. The truck’s driver al­legedly tried to steal at gun­point, un­suc­cess­fully, the car of a good Sa­mar­i­tan who stopped to help. The sus­pect then took off in an unat­tended Subaru sta­tion wagon nearby.

A po­lice task force is look­ing for the sus­pect, 23-year-old Tyler Leopoldino, whom po­lice say is “con­sid­ered armed and dan­ger­ous” and shouldn’t be ap­proached by the pub­lic.

The task force al­ready has nabbed Oliv­era and a woman ac­cused of be­ing an ac­com­plice of Oliv­era’s, 24-year-old Jas­mine Saragosa-Taoy.

Oth­ers brought in by the task force in­clude 25-yearold Arnold “BJ” Fer­nan­dez of Vol­cano, ac­cused of three counts of unau­tho­rized con­trol of a ve­hi­cle, bur­glary, theft and firearms charges, plus Juanita Gram­mer and Bron­son-Lee Oili, both 28 and of Pa­hoa, whom po­lice say were sit­ting in a stolen ve­hi­cle in Hawai­ian Beaches with a sawed-off shot­gun in their pos­ses­sion when ap­pre­hended.

And on Thurs­day, 24-yearold Mele Ga­sologa of Hilo was charged in con­nec­tion with a po­lice chase in an al­legedly stolen car.

“It ap­pears they’re be­com­ing more brazen, es­pe­cially with firearms be­ing in­volved,” po­lice Lt. Miles Chong of the Hilo Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tions Sec­tion said Fri­day.

The task force, de­ployed to ad­dress what po­lice de­scribed in a writ­ten state­ment as “the alarm­ing num­ber of auto thefts,” is com­prised of five of­fi­cers from the Hilo and Puna pa­trol di­vi­sions and led by Sgt. James Cor­rea.

Chong said the of­fi­cers “were cho­sen for their fa­mil­iar­ity of auto theft sus­pects, their as­so­ci­ates and their meth­ods of op­er­a­tion.”

Auto theft re­ports are up sharply from a year ago in East Hawaii. In Hilo, there were 27 re­ported auto thefts in April, 31 in May and 27 in June. The re­ports for the same months in 2016 were 14, 13 and 12. In Puna, there were 13 re­ports of stolen ve­hi­cles in April, 10 in June and 12 in July. Those num­bers a year ear­lier were three, three and seven.

Some auto thefts oc­cur in broad day­light and hap­pen so quickly wit­nesses might not be aware a car is be­ing stolen, as Lori Mikkel­son learned. Her 1996 Toy­ota Ta­coma pickup truck was stolen at about 9 a.m. July 21 in front of the Hilo Ar­mory.

“It was there for five min­utes. It had all of our tools,” Mikkel­son told the Tri­bune-Her­ald. “My hus­band was bring­ing me to work and drop­ping me off so he could go to work. … My hus­band helped me up to my of­fice be­cause I had all kinds of pa­per­work and stuff, and he went back down to the truck, and it was gone.”

Mikkel­son said wit­nesses re­ported the truck was taken by a young Cau­casian male with curly, shoul­der­length brown hair. She said the truck was locked and the re­spond­ing of­fi­cer told her the thief prob­a­bly had a master key, which Chong said is rel­a­tively un­com­mon.

“On­line, like YouTube, they’ll show th­ese things … but we rarely come across them,” he said, adding that most car thieves are “sloppy,” dam­ag­ing the ve­hi­cle’s steer­ing col­umn to hot-wire it.

Chong said po­lice sus­pect “a drug nexus” as the rea­son for most car thefts, “ei­ther trad­ing or bar­ter­ing stolen prop­erty, in­clud­ing th­ese cars, for the drugs.” He said the age range of most car thieves po­lice en­counter are “late teens to their early 30s.”

On on­line fo­rums, such as the Face­book page Big Is­land Thieves, some posters al­lege there are or­ga­nized car theft rings.

“We don’t sus­pect there’s a for­mal or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture, but there are loose as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween all of th­ese peo­ple be­cause of that drug nexus,” Chong said.

An­other story mak­ing the rounds via so­cial me­dia and the co­conut wire­less is the “300 club” — a con­fed­er­a­tion of thieves al­legedly try­ing to steal 300 ve­hi­cles by the end of the year.

“We haven’t been able to sub­stan­ti­ate yet a ‘300 club,’ but we’re get­ting that same in­for­ma­tion, for the most part, from so­cial me­dia like Big Is­land Thieves,” Chong said. “We haven’t been able to de­velop any in­tel­li­gence yet about who is in­volved or any par­tic­u­lar sus­pects, but it does seem to be some sort of com­pe­ti­tion.”

Mikkel­son said she called po­lice about her truck “about a dozen times,” but didn’t get a call back. She said when she fi­nally reached a de­tec­tive with in­for­ma­tion that lum­ber racks from her truck were seen at a dump­ing site near Pepeekeo, she was told to go to the scene to ver­ify the racks were hers.

“Re­ally? We’re sup­posed to go up to a crime scene by our­selves? I don’t think that’s right. I think the po­lice ought to be up there. I feel kind of weirded out about that,” she said. “… I feel vi­o­lated, and I feel no­body’s re­ally do­ing noth­ing about this.”

“If it oc­curred the way she al­leged, it shouldn’t have hap­pened,” Chong said. “We need the vic­tim to per­son­ally iden­tify their prop­erty, if it’s aban­doned up there. I can­not say for sure what hap­pened, but I would sug­gest they meet with an of­fi­cer, go up there with an of­fi­cer, show them where it’s at, what it is, and then the of­fi­cer can re­cover it.”

Chong said he’s not aware of or­ga­nized “chop shops” where stolen cars are stripped of their parts, but does know of sev­eral dump­ing sites where ve­hi­cles are left af­ter thieves ei­ther run them into the ground or have no fur­ther use for them.

“Ihope Road (in Moun­tain View) is one of those places that we did send the task force out to look at,” he said. “There are oth­ers in the Hawai­ian Acres and Fern For­est ar­eas that we went to take a look at. And a lot of times, we just find them aban­doned and some­times stripped, as well.”

Chong ad­vises car own­ers to lock their cars, even at home, and take the key with them. He also said if car own­ers see their stolen ve­hi­cle, they should call po­lice dis­patch at 935-3311 in­stead of just re­ly­ing on so­cial me­dia.

“Give us a call, and we can act on that in­for­ma­tion a lot quicker,” he said.

Mikkel­son said she isn’t on Face­book, but ex­pressed the same worry and frus­tra­tion seen daily in so­cial me­dia.

“I want this to stop. I think we’re all in dan­ger,” she said. “… I have grand­chil­dren that are grow­ing up here, and I don’t want them in dan­ger.”

Chong

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