Car thieves stole a record number of motor vehicles i Baltimore last year and virtually assured that Maryland will again be among the leading states in auto thefts.
Figures compiled by police show that car thefts were up by 20 percent in Baltimore last year, while stolen-car reports continued to climb in the surrounding counties. In 1989, Maryland was ranked 11th in the country in thefts per capita by the FBI and a non-profit insurance group in Chicago.
The national consequences of car theft are staggering: an estimated $7 billion in annual costs to taxpayers and the insured, weeks of inconvenience and frustration for the victims, plus emotional trauma that can last for some time.
In Baltimore, 9,842 vehicles were stolen last year, compared with 8,173 in 1989, says Capt. Charles Dickens of the auto theft unit.
In Baltimore County, 4,270 thefts were reported last year, an increase of almost 10 percent over 1989. In Anne Arundel County, police recorded 1,567 stolen vehicles, a 12 percent increase. In Howard County, police investigated 970 vehicle thefts, an increase of 8 percent.
The 1990 figures for Harford and Carroll counties are not available yet. In 1989, Harford reported 317 car thefts, and Carroll reported 126.
In Prince George's County, thefts dropped slightly to 8,297 last year. But residents of seven independent municipalities in Prince George's can report thefts to smaller police departments whose figures aren't yet available.
Police say most car thieves steal automobiles for joy riding, for parts, or because they're safe transportation for drug deals.
"Basically, it's being done at a higher rate because today it takes a kid about 30 seconds to break into a car, start it and take off," says Detective Nick Tempera, a veteran auto-theft specialist with the Anne Arundel County police.
"We have even seen young thieves set up pizza-delivery people and steal their cars," Tempera says.
City detective George Desch sees much of the problem as carelessness or lack of concern by car owners.
"It's amazing that people treat their vehicles with such little care," Desch says. "Their car is the second most expensive item they buy in their life yet you'd never know it. They leave them unlocked, openly store items in the back seat. . . . They forget it until they see the new insurance premium rates."
The Chicago-based National Automobile Theft Bureau, financed by 660 property and casualty insurance companies, says 1.5 million automobiles were stolen in 1989 and another 2.9 million automobiles were broken into and looted of valuables or accessories.
If the trend continues, car thefts could exceed 2 million a year by the end of the decade, the NATB says.
"And, to the person who has their car stolen, you can't put a dollar amount on the crime or the trouble and frustration it causes," says Tim Kett, spokesman for the NATB.
Kett says the bureau estimates that vehicle theft and looting take about $7 billion a year from the pockets of Americans. Those costs include higher insurance premiums, out-of-pocket expenses such as car rentals and tax increases to help support increased law enforcement.
Nationally, Kett says, thieves frequently steal cars to rob a store or make a narcotics deal. "That way, if they get caught, the police can't impound and keep their personal vehicles," he says.
Another variant is the "quick strip," in which crack or heroin addicts steal a car or truck and strip the wheels, battery and other accessories for conversion into quick cash. The cash is then used to purchase drugs.
To a lesser degree, professional car thieves sometimes steal a certain model on "order" for a prospective customer who wants a cut-rate Jaguar or Mercedes. Also, illegal "chop shop" operators steal cars for valuable parts such as a hood or quarter panel, Kett says.
In Maryland, however, police investigators place most of the blame for car thefts on teen-age joy riders who snatch vehicles and ditch them. Sometimes they will steal accessories, or simply take the car on a dare and then set it on fire.
"Put simply, some cars have become easy to steal," says Detective John Frech, of the Baltimore County Police Department.
Police say ignition mechanisms on some Japanese and General Motors cars are easy to tear out with a tool called a dent puller, found in any auto parts store for about $5. Thieves can start other models by tearing out the turn signal indicator and manipulating a rod inside the steering column.
"They can get in a dozen ways and they don't care if they damage the car," Frech says. "They're only going to ditch it, probably in the city or another county, and steal another one. We've seen some thieves steal three and four cars in one night.
"Most of them are kids from 12 to 18 and it's rare that they have an operator's license," Frech says. "A couple of years ago, we had a 17-year-old who stole more than 100 cars and more that he couldn't remember. He got five years in prison."
Police are on the lookout for another wrinkle during the winter. People who leave their cars warming up in the driveway sometimes find the car missing when they come out of the house to go to work. The same thing happens to motorists who duck into a convenience store for a coffee-to-go and leave their engines running.
In an effort to share information and spot car theft trends, police from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, the District of Columbia and Virginia meet once a month. Baltimore-area detectives also have visited Detroit to tell the chairman and other officials of General Motors why their cars are frequent targets.
As a result of those meetings, GM has told local police it will change the design of its ignition system and steering column locks in 1992.
But auto theft police still say they are outnumbered by the youthful army of car thieves. Furthermore, says one frustrated officer, "judges and juries should send a murderer or rapist to jail first. The jails and courts are stacked up with violent bad guys and they are the priority."
"The trouble is, these kids who steal the cars know this. And they're off to the races."