LAPD Uses Bait Cars to Target San Fernando Valley Thieves

Bait Car Felony Stop

LAPD Bait Car Unit Officer Nick Lopez keeps a close eye on a pair of car theft suspects during a felony stop at the intersection of Saticoy Street and Gentry Avenue in North Hollywood on Thursday, Oct, 6, 2011. (Hans Gutknecht/Daily News Staff Photographer)

His friend was urging him to get into the car, but Victor A. Vasquez had a bad feeling about it.

Just minutes before, Vasquez’s buddy had seen a man in dark sunglasses and baggy clothes park the Toyota Camry along the curb on Saticoy Street, then use a towel to wipe his fingerprints from the steering wheel, windows and door handles

That man then jumped into another car that sped away, ditching the silver Toyota so quickly that one of its doors was left ajar. Inside, a laptop computer lay on the front seat, cartons of unopened cigarettes were stashed in the back, and a makeshift key was still stuck in the ignition.

Against his better judgment, Vasquez got in the passenger seat, with his friend, Edwin A. Hernandez, behind the wheel.

Little did they know that the car was one of LAPD’s decoy cars, rigged to shut off and lock via remote control. Before the duo had driven even a block, the Camry was dead, coasting to a stop near the elementary school where Vasquez’s young son is enrolled.

The boy wasn’t among the hundreds of children on the playground or he would have seen nine LAPD officers – most in plainclothes – with their guns trained on the two suspects inside the locked sedan.

“I had a feeling and my instinct was right,” Vasquez, 24, said later, in an interview at the LAPD’s North Hollywood station. “But it was too late. I knew it was a setup.”

Vasquez said Hernandez had persuaded him get in the car for a quick ride to a nearby McDonald’s, where the two planned to grab a bite and abandon the vehicle.

“My mind wasn’t on no robbing or nothing,” Vasquez said. “It just happened so quick.”

The two were booked on suspicion of grand theft auto and drug possession after authorities found two methamphetamine pipes that the pair had thrown under the seat of the car as police cleared the schoolyard.

Vasquez was on probation for theft, but his criminal record also includes burglaries, possession of drugs and burglary tools and tampering with a vehicle.

Hernandez, 23, had been previously arrested for theft and car racing causing injury. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Those two guys would have taken someone else’s car,” said Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese, the LAPD’s highest-ranking officer in the San Fernando Valley, where property crimes account for 90 percent of serious offenses.

“They would have committed multiple crimes if we hadn’t caught them doing this type of operation.”

A total of 237 suspects have been arrested since Albanese created the Bait Car Unit in March 2010, including 112 this year.

About 75 percent of the suspects the unit arrests are career criminals, officers said.

Another suspect arrested last week was a gang member with 11 felony and seven misdemeanor convictions for crimes including burglary, car theft and drug possession. Now facing eight years in prison if convicted of stealing the bait car, the suspect told police he had just wanted to park the vehicle.

Police, however, were skeptical. Gangs have been known to keep a stable of stolen cars to be used by their members. Some will steal a car and park it in a different location to be retrieved later.

“Look at the caliber of the guy we’re getting,” said Officer Al Arguelles, a member of the Bait Car Unit. “They’re capering. The reasonable person would not try to move it, or get in and look around.

“We’re not targeting people unless they’re already engaged in some kind of criminal activity.”

The unit is deployed to problem areas in the Valley where car break-ins and thefts are spiking.

Last Wednesday, the unit targeted neighborhoods in North Hollywood and Van Nuys, where five cars had recently been stolen and seven others burglarized. On Thursday, the unit went to another part of North Hollywood, where 11 cars had recently been broken into.

The arrests don’t come easy.

The 10-member unit considers itself lucky if officers make more than one arrest a shift, although they once nabbed three suspects. It’s not uncommon, however, for the unit to go for days without making an arrest.

Vehicle thefts and burglaries are notoriously difficult to solve, Albanese said, with arrests made in just 5 percent of the cases.

For that reason, the unit’s ability to catch thieves red-handed makes its work invaluable, he said. In the Valley, car thefts and break-ins are both down about 16 percent this year compared with the same period in 2010.

“You could easily put a dozen crimes with each one of those arrests,” Albanese said. “These are dysfunctional drug users who are going to go from victim to victim to victim in the dead of the night, going from car to car.

“Those 112 crimes would be 1,000 if we didn’t take these guys off the street,” he said.

The unit’s members spend most nights watching for potential thieves. Most walk by without even glancing at the car, while others will show some interest but won’t bite.

Some of the officers see it as an encouraging sign, even though there’s no action.

“It’s almost like an integrity check,” said Officer Carl Casey. “It shows the majority of citizens in the Valley are normal, don’t have that mentality.”

In some instances, however, the unit’s vehicle is recognized by locals, who will wave or shout out “Bait car!” as a warning to others. Reality shows like truTV’s “Bait Car” may have also tipped off potential thieves.

But the officers use the publicity to their advantage.

“Now that they know the bait car is out there, they’re less likely to take advantage of a car that’s left behind by a little old lady who’s loading her groceries and left the car on,” Arguelles said.

The unit has been deployed in shopping plazas and in the parking lots of athletic clubs – favorite trolling grounds for thieves since many people leave their belongings in their cars while they shop or work out.

All the items in the bait car are worth more than $1,500, which means a felony theft charge should the thief make off with those.

“If something’s for free, they’re going to take it,” said Sgt. Paul Hendry. “We’ve created a crime where there was no real victim. You didn’t get your car broken into.”

Some critics have called similar operations a form of entrapment, but police and legal experts say the thieves are simply put in the position to take the bait – or not.

“You’re putting a bait car on the street, but nobody is enticing the suspect to steal the car,” said Dmitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney. “Would any reasonable person who is law-abiding break the windows and take the car? I think most reasonable people would not.

“Really,” he said, “it’s a proactive effort by law enforcement to stop them from victimizing other people.”

From: https://www.dailynews.com/

 

Little did they know that the car was one of LAPD’s decoy cars, rigged to shut off and lock via remote control. Before the duo had driven even a block, the Camry was dead, coasting to a stop near the elementary school where Vasquez’s young son is enrolled.

The boy wasn’t among the hundreds of children on the playground or he would have seen nine LAPD officers – most in plainclothes – with their guns trained on the two suspects inside the locked sedan.

“I had a feeling and my instinct was right,” Vasquez, 24, said later, in an interview at the LAPD’s North Hollywood station. “But it was too late. I knew it was a setup.”

Vasquez said Hernandez had persuaded him get in the car for a quick ride to a nearby McDonald’s, where the two planned to grab a bite and abandon the vehicle.

“My mind wasn’t on no robbing or nothing,” Vasquez said. “It just happened so quick.”

The two were booked on suspicion of grand theft auto and drug possession after authorities found two methamphetamine pipes that the pair had thrown under the seat of the car as police cleared the schoolyard.

Vasquez was on probation for theft, but his criminal record also includes burglaries,

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