Auto thefts rise sharply
Police task force hoping to stymie ‘ brazen’ thieves
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.”