The call Georgetown police received on Feb. 15 was all too familiar, but the outcome this time was very different.
For the past three months, Georgetown has experienced a rash of vehicle trespass cases and vehicle thefts. While other parts of the county have seen an increase as well, Georgetown, in particular, has seemingly been hit the hardest.
Since August, eight vehicles have been stolen — six since Dec. 1 — and several others have been entered in an attempt to steal either the vehicles themselves or items inside, Sgt. Jon Gaskins detailed.
“I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything like this (trend) before,” he said.
So, when Gaskins received a call on Feb. 15 that another local vehicle had been stolen, he wasn’t too surprised.
Gaskins arrived at the reporting party’s residence not long after the vehicle had been stolen sometime around 8:30 a.m. During the contact, the reporting party received word that the vehicle had been ditched in Empire Junction.
Gaskins found the stolen vehicle and learned that the suspects were now in a white truck, which was later seen at Alvarado Cemetery. He located the suspect vehicle around 10:25 a.m. and a chase down Interstate 70 ensued.
After the suspect vehicle wrecked, authorities arrested Erik Arroyo-Lerma on suspicion of several counts of first-degree assault, vehicle theft and felony eluding; and Michelle Luna Salazar on suspicion of trespass and vehicle theft.
According to Gaskins, the Georgetown Police Department is investigating whether there’s a connection between the two suspects and any previous cases of vehicle theft and/or vehicle trespass.
The larger trend
Currently, law enforcement across Colorado, including local departments, have seen an increase of vehicles being unlawfully entered — whether by force or because the vehicle was unlocked — and then items inside and/or the vehicle itself being stolen. Authorities are also seeing an increase in theft of catalytic converters, which contain precious metals.
Across Clear Creek, while many vehicles that were stolen or had items stolen from them were unlocked, there are at least four cases involving forceful entry, including two in Georgetown.
For Georgetown, all but one of its stolen vehicles have been recovered, Gaskins confirmed. Two were on I-70 after they broke down, three were found in other parts of Clear Creek County, and some were left in the Denver area.
“It seems like in some of the instances here, that they’re using the stolen cars as Uber rides,” Gaskins said of people stealing vehicles to drive them down to Denver, where they’re abandoned.
In Empire, Police Chief John Stein said there’s been an increase in vehicle-related crime since Dec. 24 when a catalytic converter was stolen.
In January, Empire had suspects checking car doors to see if they were unlocked, and items were stolen from one vehicle, a separate call the same weekend about a vehicle that was unlawfully entered in an attempt to steal it, and two catalytic converters stolen the next week.
Stein and Gaskins believe those stealing catalytic converters are separate from those trespassing into vehicles, with Stein describing how professional thieves can steal a catalytic converter from underneath a car in less than a minute.
Idaho Springs has seen some similar cases, although not to the same degree of intensity.
Police Chief Chris Malanka said there was a rash of auto thefts between November and January. However, in all but one case, the vehicles were not only unlocked but idling.
There were incidents where unlocked cars were entered and items were stolen, but Malanka said his department identified suspects and confronted them and their parents in early January. Since then, there haven’t been any similar incidents, he stated.
The city has experienced an increase in catalytic converter theft, though, which Malanka noted is something neighboring counties have experienced as well.
As to why this trend of vehicle-related crime seems much worse in Georgetown than its counterparts, Gaskins said he was unsure, but noted that Summit County is also having major problems with these crimes.
`Our best defense is prevention’
All three officers said there are tangible steps residents can take to prevent such crimes from happening in the future.
Always keep vehicles locked. Do not keep any valuables, including keys, inside, Gaskins said. If the vehicle has a key fob with sensors for lock/unlock functions, keep the fob as far away from the vehicle overnight as possible, so the vehicle will remain locked.
Park vehicles as close to the residence as possible. Stein said many vehicles that were unlawfully entered in Empire were parked on the street. If possible, park them inside, as that is about the only way to prevent catalytic converter thefts.
Invest in outdoor lights, Malanka recommended, and keep an eye on neighboring properties as well.
Also, while it might not help prevent crime, investing in Ring cameras or other surveillance equipment might help with police investigations if something does happen. Malanka and Stein both said such equipment has been useful in these recent vehicle-centered cases.
“The biggest challenge is to change the culture of (residents) thinking they can leave things unlocked,” Malanka said. “ … Our best defense is prevention.”