CALL7 Investigators find thousands of Denver car theft cases unresolved, despite recovered evidence

Odds of theft suspect arrest less than 1 in 10

DENVER - If your car is stolen in Denver, chances are, you'll get it back. But approximately nine times out of 10, the thief or thieves won't be held responsible.

There are 10 new victims of car theft every day in Denver, on average -- about 3,600 every year. In September 2013, it happened to Jill Montgomery.

"I walked outside and my car was gone," she said. "I knew immediately it was stolen."

Montgomery's car was taken from right outside of her home. But she says the response from the Denver Police Department was also troubling.

"They were very matter of fact, that, 'There's really nothing we can do about it,'" Montgomery said.

The CALL7 Investigators found 7,246 cars reported stolen in Denver in 2012 and 2013, and discovered hundreds of thefts in some zip codes. In 80219 alone, there were 1,009.

It's a trend Robert Force, Executive Director of the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority, or CATPA, said affects everyone.

"Every vehicle that gets stolen has an effect on the insurance premiums that I pay, and that all my neighbors pay," Force said. “So the higher that those vehicle thefts are occurring, the higher the premiums are going to be."

It's not just about the cost. Force says car theft is often just the beginning of a crime spree.

"A lot of times the vehicle is used to get from point A to point B, and also being used in the commission of other crimes," Force said.

Police found Montgomery’s car abandoned, 12 hours after it was stolen. But by then, it was totaled.

"It was completely stripped," said Montgomery. "The seats were gone; they took the tires and the wheels."

About 72 percent of vehicles stolen in Denver in 2012 and 2013 were ultimately found, just like Montgomery's. But Denver police never took photographs or finger prints when they recovered her car -- and they never made an arrest.

The CALL7 Investigators have learned that’s by far the most likely outcome. DPD records show no arrests or citations in more than 90 percent of car theft cases over the same two-year period. The department lists more than 75 percent as "Inactive – Early Case Closure."

"It's extremely frustrating that these people are getting away with it," said Montgomery. "I mean, the fact that they know the police department doesn't do anything about it."

"We have to use our resources wisely, and auto theft does not rise to the level of a crime against a person," said Matt Murray, Denver Police Department Chief of Staff.

Murray said the Department does what it can with the resources it has. Auto thefts were down seven percent last year, and the city’s official clearance rate – which includes cases closed by "exceptional means" such as the suspect's death, as well as arrests – was 11.8 percent in 2013. The national average for similarly-sized cities was 7.8 percent. Two officers serve full-time on the Metro Area Auto Theft Task Force, which receives millions of dollars in grant money, including $6,947,078 from CATPA from 2009 to 2012. But Murray says the public needs to do its job, too.

"We'd much prefer to get that theft rate down by preventing it in the first place. A lot of that comes from public education," said Murray.

CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon asked, "Couldn't you also prevent auto thefts by arresting more thieves?"

"You could, but that's not the best way to do it," said Murray.

Murray says officers and investigators may finger print and photograph recovered vehicles, but often decide against it.

"We don't want to just process fingerprints for the sake of processing fingerprints," said Murray. "We want to collect evidence when it will help solve a crime."

Solving crimes is exactly what Force said an increase in car theft arrests could accomplish.

"When we take a look at what's really going on in the state of Colorado, a majority of auto theft is dealing with other crimes," Force said. "Robbery, burglary, dealing with methamphetamine and drug trafficking, dealing with gang activities that are illegal."

Rabon asked Murray to weigh in.

"So their thought is reducing car thefts can lead to a reduction in overall crime. Your thoughts?" she asked.

"That’s great; it sounds like you already have their opinion, so it’s fine," said Murray.

"No, I’m asking your thoughts," said Rabon.

"I think that auto theft is a property crime," said Murray. "We have to give it a certain amount of attention and we do."

Yet of the 7,246 car theft cases in Denver in 2012 and 2013, only 681 ended in an arrest or citation, and of those, 461 actually ended up in court.

"This is a very difficult crime to prove," said Murray. "Even if I find someone's fingerprints in a car, that doesn't mean they stole the car."

Force agrees. "To have one arrest for every one vehicle theft is not really practical," he said.

In fact, the most common way police catch car thieves is by chance.

"The highest interdictive measure that you're going to have is by a traffic stop," Force said.

Montgomery believes the lack of arrests is fueling criminals to steal more cars, and in turn, leaving victims like her with little recourse.

"We're a big city and there are a lot of things going on," she said. "But this needs to be addressed."

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If you have a news tip, or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.

INTERACTIVE MAPS:

Click on this map to see the details of individual car theft reports, including when and where the vehicles were stolen, makes and models, whether they were recovered and the status of the case (mobile users: http://ch7ne.ws/1fpDdna):

Click on this map to see a breakdown of car thefts by zip code -- including the percentage of cases that ended in arrests or citations (mobile users: http://ch7ne.ws/1jcT12j):