There's a new breed of car thief out there -- not only adept at picking locks and bypassing alarms, but also unafraid of police and increasingly dangerous, Baltimore County authorities say.
"The character of the offender has changed," said Sgt. Robert Jagoe, head of the county's auto theft squad. "They're more aggressive. They used to run from us. Now, they're running at us."
Like most departments in the Baltimore area, county police have cut back on high-speed chases of stolen cars, hoping to keep the thieves from driving recklessly.
But even when they're not being chased, police say, the thieves are driving at 80 to 100 mph through busy intersections -- and even ramming police cars.
* On June 30, an 18-year-old Washington youth was driving a stolen Honda Accord at high speed in the 10900 block of Old Court Road in Woodstock when he lost control and struck a tree, killing one of his two passengers. County police have a warrant for the driver's arrest and are searching for him.
* On June 25, a thief driving a minivan taken in a Pennsylvania carjacking rammed a state trooper's cruiser after a 100-mph chase on the Baltimore Beltway near Falls Road. The driver of the van was killed and a trooper was injured.
* On June 22, car thieves rammed the automobile of a woman who tried to stop them, then crashed a stolen Lexus into two Baltimore County police cruisers during a wild ride from Stevenson into the city along Park Heights Avenue. A 16-year-old city youth was arrested and four companions are being sought.
* Early on June 4, a car thief in a stolen Honda Accord tried to run over a Cockeysville officer on York Road, then ran two other patrol cars off the highway.
Moments later, the stolen Accord careened through the intersection at York and Padonia roads at almost 100 mph and struck a car being driven by a 23-year-old Timonium man, who was seriously hurt.
Three passengers in the Accord also were hurt, but the driver was spared serious injury by the car's air bag. Police later arrested a 17-year-old West Baltimore youth and charged him with the attempted murder of a police officer, said Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger, a county police spokesman.
Part of the problem with car theft is that some people consider it a "kiddie crime," said Sergeant Jagoe, but thieves are driving cars recklessly at high speeds, endangering themselves and others. He said the thieves think nothing of playing "bumper" cars with a $40,000 Acura.
"They think there's little danger that they'll be caught," he said. "And if they get caught, they don't see much chance of being punished. Therefore, they see little risk, and that's the problem."
In addition to being more brazen, thieves also are more active -- and more sophisticated, police say. With the exception of Anne Arundel County, every metropolitan jurisdiction has reported a significant increase in car theft this year -- despite a miserable winter that often made roads impassable. The biggest increases were in the city and Baltimore County, according to State Police statistics.
In the city, 3,231 cars were stolen between Jan. 1 and March 31, an increase of 44 percent over the same period last year. In Baltimore County, 1,485 cars were stolen during the same period, an increase of almost 20 percent.
By far the most popular cars among thieves are the Honda Accord and the Acura Legend. For example, in Baltimore County, 266 Accords and 142 Legends have been stolen this year.
Sergeant Jagoe said thieves are increasingly sophisticated about circumventing security devices. One suspect arrested recently had a locksmith's set of car slim jims -- used to release door locks from the outside -- and a set of manuals, complete with pictures of locks from all major cars and instructions on how to use the tools.
On one recent night in Garrison, one of the hardest-hit areas of Baltimore County, thieves tampered with 15 makes and models of cars in one neighborhood. But only three were stolen.
Police were puzzled at first, but then realized what had happened. "It was a training session. They were teaching someone how to steal cars," Sergeant Jagoe said.
Adrienne Ruth Hoffman, 64, knows what it's like to be a car theft victim. Her 1992 Acura Legend was stolen six times.
"I had a little Buick for years, and nobody ever paid attention to it," she said. "Then I thought I would get a glamorous car."
The last time it was snatched, on May 10, the car was locked inside the dealer's repair garage on Reisterstown Road when thieves broke into the shop and stole it. As they drove off, the driver tried to run over two police officers -- who pumped the expensive car full of bullets as it sped away.
The thieves abandoned the Acura in Washington. When they had it towed back to Baltimore County police headquarters, officers counted 14 bullet holes.
"It seemed to be an ill-fated car," Mrs. Hoffman said.
After six thefts -- including four from the parking place behind her house -- Mrs. Hoffman said she had had enough. She bought another Buick.