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Car Theft Was Criminal, Graffiti Was an Insult

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A veil of secrecy shrouded the Long Beach Police Department. The case was so sensitive that a routine crime report was not released. Tight-lipped officials barely acknowledged that the crime had occurred.

What was it? Murder? Embezzlement at City Hall? Prostitutes operating out of the Police Department?

Not quite.

For two weeks, police have been withholding the fact that somebody stole one of their undercover cars.

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An old Mazda containing surveillance equipment to nab graffiti artists was stolen May 3. It had been left unattended in the 500 block of Daisy Avenue. When Detective Roger Osborne found it a block away, the car was “completely ransacked and destroyed.”

The battery was gone. The windows were all cracked. The tires were flattened. Special steel enclosures hiding the surveillance equipment had been pried open, and the video unit was missing. And in a final act of defiance, the thieves marked the unmarked police car with graffiti.

“It made everybody mad as hell,” said Detective Norm Sorenson, who works in the gang detail.

Police used the car, with its hidden video camera, to catch gang members dirtying walls with their logos. Since last fall, the department’s gang detail unit has been hiding the video equipment at strategic spots in hopes of filming graffiti artists at work. Police then use the videos in court to win convictions.

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“We’re trying to use all the available tools to do something about the outrageous amount of graffiti,” Sorenson said, noting that the city spends nearly $400,000 annually to clean up the mess gang members leave on private and public properties.

Osborne said: “Everybody is concerned that we can’t let young people take over our city by destroying it.” Osborne said the program has been successful, but he did not say how many convictions have resulted.

The theft of the $3,300 in equipment and the loss of the car is not a major setback, the detectives said. “That was a calculated risk,” Sorenson said.

Osborne and Lt. Melvin Gallwas had refused earlier in the month to release any information on the incident, saying it was sensitive and under investigation. The officers said they withheld information on the theft because they had several suspects and there were informants involved who feared for their lives. They arrested one suspect but released him, according to the police report.

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Osborne and Gallwas denied withholding the information because it may have been embarrassing to the department. “The problem before (with releasing information), was that it was under investigation,” Gallwas said. “But they ran out of clues.”

Staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.


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