Thieves target visible electronics

Photo Illustration by Wesley Fane

Photo Illustration by Wesley Fane

By Eric Anderson

Brittany Ray, sophomore in LAS, walked into her apartment complex’s underground parking garage to find her car’s driver side window smashed and her GPS system stolen.

“I was not a very happy camper when I saw my car,” Ray said. “I swore a little bit.”

Ray was victim to what Lt. Brad Yohnka, a Champaign police officer, called a “huge spike” in vehicular burglaries this April.

“The Champaign Police Department has had 40 vehicle burglaries reported (on campus) since the first of the year,” Yohnka said, as of April 16. And the majority of the burglaries have occurred in the first two weeks of April.

Yohnka suspects that a band of offenders made up of two to five people are causing the spike. The offenders take advantage of the coverage provided by numerous campus parking garages to snatch electronics they spot from the outside.

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The thieves target GPS systems, in-dashboard radios and iPods left in plain sight.

“GPS devices were the most commonly taken item,” said Gary Spear, crime analyst for the Champaign Police Department. “In the campus area we have lost in excess of 20 GPS units in April.”

Spear estimated that the victim of each theft incurs a $400 to $500 loss, with damage due to forcible entry in the range of $500 to $1,000.

Other than the recurrent time of theft – most occur after midnight in underground garages – there is not a definite pattern to the burglaries, making it difficult for police to track the thieves. Building owners do not focus security cameras in the garages.

“They’re lucky enough that there’s so many of these garages they can pick from,” Yohnka said.

The thieves do not prey on a particular make or model of car, nor do the police know what the thieves do with the stolen merchandise.

“It’s all speculation,” Yohnka said. “If (the thieves) are drug addicts, they might take (the stolen property) to the drug house and sell them for their drug of choice.”

They might also be bringing the “easy to sell” merchandise to the Chicago area, Yohnka added.

“When we see a spike like this, that means we have a group that is organized and working together rather than random street people that are finding unlocked doors,” Yohnka said.

The burglary and investigation unit has been investigating each theft with fingerprint work.

But fingerprinting has not revealed any leads because of the grab-and-go haste of the thefts.

“They’re basically looking in, seeing the item, shattering the window, and then reaching in – oftentimes not even opening the door – and stealing,” Yohnka said.

“They’re doing it so quick: they smash it, reach in, grab it.”

He added that the thieves use “the old spark-plug method” or carry a little pipe to shatter the window.

Spear estimated that 80 percent of the vehicles in this rash of burglaries on campus were forced entries, consisting primarily of broken windows and pried doors.

Yohnka said the police are not getting a lot of so-called “fishing expedition” reports, in which the thieves break a window but steal nothing.

“Obviously they’re seeing what they’re after,” he said.

Hesitance on the part of the public to phone the police is complicating investigations.

Yohnka said that a witness saw a man between two vehicles at 2:30 a.m. one morning, but never called the police.

“We need people to call when they see something that looks a little bit suspicious,” Yohnka said.

Yohnka said several patterns could signify burglary from a vehicle.

Look for unrecognizable vehicles in garages, vehicles that are idling with an occupant inside while other people are out prowling, people with a flashlight and people overnight wearing a backpack.

“Most students, 2:30, 3:00 in the morning, won’t have their backpacks on them,” Yohnka said.

“911 would be perfectly acceptable here if you think someone’s breaking in.”

Police do not know whether the thieves are armed.

“Don’t leave anything of value in plain view that can be seen from the outside, and lock the doors,” Yohnka said. “Be observant to anything that is the least bit suspicious and out of place.”

Although Spear said police have stopped many people at odd hours on campus, no arrests had been made as of Friday.

Ray’s stolen GPS cost her $120, and the broken window cost $200 to get replaced.

“Even in the most secure spots where you think your car is okay, your car can still be broken into,” Ray said.

“I’m definitely not going to be leaving my GPS in my car. It’s going to be coming with me wherever I go.”