Auto thefts in Howard County, particularly in Columbia, are soaring. But the county's police department has assigned only one officer full time to tracking down stolen cars, and there are no plans to assign anyone to help him.
"I'm one person. . . . I have to be everywhere," said Detective Dan Besseck, who is the auto-theft unit.
Occasionally, good fortune is on the detective's side, such as when some thieves leave their driver's licenses inside recovered stolen cars.
But such luck is small solace in the face of a record 886 car thefts in Howard County as of Friday, a total that has eclipsed the 773 thefts reported in all of last year and part of a statewide 23 percent increase over the last year.
The upward spiral in auto thefts mostly involves juveniles out for joy rides, police say. Honda Accords are the most popular targets, with Ford Mustangs showing an upsurge.
The young thieves often elude justice because of police restrictions on chasing car thieves at high speeds, court leniency and the difficulty of gaining evidence from recovered vehicles, police officers say. Car theft often is considered a "nuisance" crime, like vandalism, they say.
In Howard, the hot spots for car thefts are Columbia, followed by the busy U.S. 1 corridor and Ellicott City. Five cars were stolen from the O'Donnell Honda car dealership lot on U.S. 40 in one week in July 1993. At times, surveillance teams have been sent to such high-theft areas.
"Auto theft has gone out of sight," said Police Chief James N. Robey. "It's a major concern in the whole metropolitan area."
But Chief Robey doesn't plan to give Detective Besseck a partner. Twenty-four police recruits working toward graduation from their training next spring probably will be assigned to other duties.
"We're not dealing with an organized crime here," Chief Robey said. "I don't think it would make any difference with three or five officers working under these circumstances."
His department's recovery rate for stolen autos, intact or damaged, is about 80 percent. Most are found within 72 hours. But police made only 173 auto theft arrests last year, less than one for every four stolen cars.
Tracking down car thieves is tedious work. Detective Besseck studies theft patterns, follows leads into other counties and states, checks area towing yards and tackles piles of paperwork.
Many cars stolen in Howard are found within a day or two in Baltimore. So the detective often stops by a city impound lot on Pulaski Highway to look for leads.
One day last month in that lot, he walked around a dented, scratched, light blue 1993 Dodge Spirit sitting by a patch of weeds.
"Looks like they've been playing bumper cars with it," he said.
The car had been taken from an office complex lot in Columbia on Sept. 11 and was found two weeks later by city police in the 2400 block of Lakeview Ave., near Druid Lake in West Baltimore.
The thief had popped out the ignition, ignoring the warning on its rear window: "For Specific Use by U.S. Government Only."
Detective Besseck dusted the inside and outside of the car for prints, lifting them from the passenger and driver's-side windows, door handles and even from the rearview mirror. If it was stolen by a short juvenile, the thief might have adjusted the mirror.
"There's a challenge to it," Detective Besseck said. "You're trying to outsmart the criminal and piece together a little piece of information they left behind."
That's not easy, since career criminals can supply cars with new vehicle identification numbers to resell them, or chop up whole cars for parts. Experienced thieves with mechanical skills can set up shop, cut up a car and haul off the parts while residents are asleep in their homes as near as 20 feet away.
"No matter what steps you take, if they want your car bad enough, they'll take it," Detective Besseck said. "They're smart."
Through June of this year, a seven-member auto theft task force made up of investigators from Baltimore, the state police, the FBI and Anne Arundel and Howard counties spent nine months going after large auto theft rings, chop shops and interstate sales of stolen vehicles.
But juvenile joy riders are the main reason for the rapid growth in car thefts.
In January, Howard County police traced a string of 20 thefts of four-wheel-drive vehicles in Columbia to a group of seven area teens who belonged to an auto club called the Low Riders.
Two of the seven now serve prison sentences. One pleaded guilty two weeks ago and is awaiting sentencing, and three others are scheduled for trials in October and November. A 16-year-old was prosecuted in juvenile court, where the outcomes of cases are sealed.
The group stole Chevrolet Blazers and Jeep Cherokees during the icy weather and sped through the park area around Lake Elkhorn in a game they called "crash derby." Some vehicles were left submerged in the lake.
On Sept. 1, seven other youths -- six from Baltimore and one from Elkridge -- were arrested on auto theft charges after they led Howard police on a high-speed hourlong chase in Columbia. Two stolen vehicles were wrecked, two police cruisers were rammed, and two officers were injured. The suspects were tracked down by police dogs after bailing out of the vehicles.
But when caught, police officers say, many juvenile joy riders face punishment that is too light.
Guilty youths usually receive house arrest, probation or up to nine months to a year in a juvenile facility, depending on their backgrounds, said Bobbie Fine, an assistant state's attorney in the juvenile division of the Howard Circuit Court.
Some officers also believe that a restrictive chase policy encourages thieves to speed away. The department's pursuit policy prohibits officers to take part in high-speed pursuits in congested areas unless the thieves were involved in another serious offense.
"You've got a one-ton weapon here that could kill somebody," Detective Besseck said. "That's what scares me."
Because of those dangers, Detective Besseck said, auto theft should be treated as a more serious offense, especially when the drivers are inexperienced.
"Courts just aren't going after the car theft problem," Detective Besseck said. "Car theft is not a priority in the criminal justice system as far as prosecution.
"If you can't get people to serve time, they create a problem again and do it over and over," he said.