Police frustrated by wide-ranging juvenile car thefts in Allegheny County
Police across Allegheny County say they are bewildered by a recent rash of thefts by minors who are stealing vehicles, cash and even guns in the middle of the night.
The style of thefts are nearly identical in suburban communities from Castle Shannon to Harmar, including cases in Oakmont, Fox Chapel, Plum and Monroeville.
Police believe minors — some too young to have a driver’s license — go car to car checking for unlocked doors. If they find one, they ransack the vehicle — taking cash, debit and credit cards, electronic devices and guns.
“But if they’re lucky and find keys, they take the car,” Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole said. “That’s a new twist to it. We don’t see that, usually.”
Cole said the Haymaker neighborhood of Monroeville has experienced as many as 40 incidents of items being taken out of unlocked vehicles since June. Within the same time span, 16 vehicles have been reported stolen, with 11 of those happening in July alone.
The municipality usually sees anywhere from 25 to 40 reported stolen vehicles a year. So far this year, there have been 23, Cole said.
“This is an issue,” he said.
In Harmar, police briefly chased a stolen SUV at 3 a.m. Thursday before the three youths jumped out and ran away while the SUV coasted over an embankment.
Police Chief Jason Domaratz said the SUV had the keys in it when it was driven away from a Harmar Heights address. Another two dozen or more unlocked cars and trucks had been broken into.
Domaratz said the cars and trucks were all parked along Bechman Street or Nixon and Hite roads.
His advice to all drivers is direct: “Lock your (car) doors and don’t leave your keys in them.”
The same type of thefts happened across Oakmont within the past month, police Chief Mike Ford said.
“A lot of cars now have key fobs for a push button start, and some people leave a spare fob inside the cars or SUVs. Don’t do that,” Ford urged.
In Plum, one car has been reported stolen and another 18 have been ransacked since May, with small items and cash taken.
Fox Chapel police Chief Davis Laux said two vehicles were stolen there since mid-July.
A BMW stolen from Fox Chapel was found by police in Wilkinsburg.
Stolen white Jeep Wranglers were observed by a Castle Shannon police officer, Laux said.
“Two Jeeps. White. One went past and then the other. One Jeep was taken from Bethel Park. The other was from Fox Chapel. I’ve never heard of two white Jeeps like that at one time,” Laux said.
“All of these people seem to be working in groups. They are not in an area very long, and they are hard to apprehend because they simply hide when they see headlights approaching,” Laux said.
The vehicles they take always wind up in Pittsburgh or nearby eastern suburbs, he said.
“These people realize it’s relatively easy pickings. They don’t break windows. Their stealthiness is predicated by speed. If there is a locked car, they simply move on to the next one,” he said.
In Penn Hills, at least three vehicles have been stolen, with two being recovered. One was found in Penn Hills and another was found in Pittsburgh, police Chief Howard Burton said. Several other vehicles have been rifled through, he said, and items such as credit cards and handguns have been reported stolen.
“We’ve had at least seven or eight guns stolen from people who leave their cars unlocked. … It’s ridiculous. They’re leaving a loaded gun in an unlocked car,” Burton said.
Penn Hills police Lt. Anthony Diuluss said the recent spate started up to six weeks ago and is frustrating.
“These are thieves of opportunity,” he said. “Lock your vehicle. And, then, once you’ve done that, double-check that you locked your vehicle.”
Diuluss said Penn Hills had three reports of car break-ins Thursday night. All of them happened in the municipality’s Rosedale neighborhood. Two of the incidents did not involve stolen items, but one man reported that his vehicle and house keys were stolen.
“Now, because he didn’t lock his car, he’s having his car and home re-keyed,” Diuluss said.
So far, only Monroeville has made any arrests. Police there filed juvenile charges against five minors in the past week.
The arrests have led nowhere, Cole said.
Juvenile detention centers are not detaining them because “if they haven’t done a violent crime against a person, juvenile detention doesn’t take you,” he said.
Under state law, police cannot detain minors for more than six hours.
“They still get photographed and fingerprinted and put into the system, but then they go back home,” he said. “And if there’s no real parent structure, they could be back doing it again.”
Cole said some incidents have gone unreported because some of the items taken from unlocked vehicles are small.
“That’s (partly) why it continues,” he said, urging residents to report any incident no matter how small.
“When they’re taking guns … that becomes problematic. That’s a real issue, because you have a kid who’s maybe not very mature yet. And that’s where you can get yourself into doing something really crazy like robbery, homicide, assault. I mean, you can only imagine.”
Cole declined to reveal how many weapons have been stolen but said only one has been recovered.
Monroeville police have increased patrols in the Haymaker area. The department is meeting with local departments to develop an idea of how and when these crimes happen.
Police are issuing public alerts through the municipality’s alert system, Nixle. Since May, police have issued five alerts related to the issue, urging residents to lock their vehicles.
But, he said, “so far, there’s been nothing fruitful to stop these thefts.”
The best thing to do to prevent these thefts?
Said Cole: “Lock your doggone cars.”