The car door is unlocked; a cellular phone and shopping bags lie on the seats. The popular model Plymouth looks like an easy target.
But it's a would-be thief's worst nightmare. When he gets inside and closes the doors, he can't get out. He's trapped, and three Anne Arundel County police officers are flashing badges in his face.
"Within 30 seconds, we're on him," said Sgt. Howard Ebbert, supervisor of the county Police Department's auto squad.
Anne Arundel detectives are taking the Plymouth and three sport utility vehicles to the county's car theft hot spots -- shopping centers along Ritchie Highway, hotels near Baltimore-Washington International Airport and apartment complexes in Glen Burnie -- to shop for holiday thieves.
Police said they have stopped or arrested at least one person in each of the 15 or so times they have used the bait cars. In some cases, they have stopped suspects who were trying to break into other cars parked nearby.
All four bait vehicles -- General Motors or Chrysler Corp. models -- have that car-next-door look. But the doors have been rigged so that they can't be opened from the inside, and the ignition systems have been disabled.
Police park the cars in darker, less-used sections of parking lots, scatter shopping bags and perhaps a boom box or a cellular phone in plain view on the seats, and leave a door unlocked, as careless drivers often do. Then, they sit back and wait for someone to take the bait.
"It's like fishing," Ebbert said, adding that he hopes the holiday season will give detectives more than a few nibbles.
Auto theft remains a nettlesome crime throughout the state. More than 36,179 vehicles were stolen last year, said Carolyn Gorman of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington.
Baltimore County police tried a similar ploy for one week each in 1994 and 1995. They planted a gold Acura Legend with leather seats and a compact disc changer in Greengate, in the Greenspring Valley, an area that had the highest rate of stolen Acuras in the county.
The car was rigged so that the engine would not start unless a key with a computer chip was used.
Police nicknamed it the Golden Egg, but it resulted in goose eggs for arrests.
"They were stealing cars all around us, but they weren't stealing our car," said Sgt. Bob Jagoe, who supervises Baltimore County's county's regional auto theft team. "We just couldn't attract thieves to our car because there were so many other cars to choose from."
Baltimore County police now frequent the neighborhoods where stolen cars are most often recovered and try to find thieves. For Anne Arundel police, that would often mean going into another jurisdiction, because many of the cars stolen from the county are recovered in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Frequently, the thieves are interested only in the goods inside the bait car, Ebbert said.
But whatever their motives, their surprise at seeing police descend on them so quickly is unmistakable, Ebbert said.
"I would parallel it to a deer caught in the headlights. They kind of wonder where we came from," he said.
Pub Date: 12/07/96