The thefts began multiplying in the last year: Crooks smashed windows or entered unlocked doors to swipe luggage, shopping bags and other valuables from cars parked at tourist destinations across Los Angeles’ Westside.
As investigators chased leads, they noticed striking similarities in the heists: The suspects were Bay Area gang members traveling in rental cars to Southern California to commit crimes against unsuspecting tourists at shopping centers, museums and other high-traffic areas.
Scouring parking lots and garages for out-of-state license plates and scoping out windshields for bar codes indicating a rental car was their MO.
Now, detectives from police agencies in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are scrambling to stem a new, audacious crime wave in which hard-to-track out-of-towners are preying on vulnerable sightseers at some of the nation’s top tourist destinations.
“It is a huge problem,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Capt. Ed Ramirez, commanding officer of the West Hollywood area. “We have been plagued by this on the Westside. It is extremely widespread.”
Traditionally, automobile smash-and-grabs have been home-grown and a neighborhood problem. In this case, crews primarily from San Francisco and Oakland, as well as Antioch, Pittsburg and other cities in Contra Costa County, appear to believe that the “time and distance” from the Southland provide some shield, police said.
“It was our No. 1 crime trend in West Bureau in 2019,” said LAPD Cmdr. Cory Palka.
Prosecuting the crimes has been hampered by a loophole in state law that makes it harder to obtain a conviction for auto burglary without proof that the car doors were locked. Many tourists cannot easily return to testify.
In many cases resulting in arrests, suspects either have posted bond or have been released after pleading to lesser charges.
The thefts had become an epidemic in the Bay Area and a lucrative endeavor for gang members until residents and businesses bolstered security, said Richmond Police Lt. Matt Stonebraker. Many repeat offenders are well-known to law enforcement.
“This has also caused them to hit the road to locations where they can have anonymity in other jurisdictions,” Stonebraker said.
In Los Angeles, police describe brazen crooks breaking windows in crowded parking areas with surveillance cameras rolling, waiting for people to get just far enough away from their vehicle. Even as arrests are made to halt some crews, additional culprits — police believe multiple gangs are involved — arrive to commit more thefts.
“We are seeing a shift,” said LAPD Det. Brent Hopkins of the Wilshire Division. “You have tourist suspects targeting tourist victims. These are the hallmarks of the Bay Area groups.”
The LAPD’s Wilshire Division, which includes popular tourist destinations such as the Grove, Beverly Center, the Original Farmers Market and museums along the Miracle Mile, recorded 1,968 car burglaries in 2019. The number jumped 29% from 2018 and 37% from 2017, with much of that spike attributed to Bay Area gangs, Hopkins said.
In July, a three-member crew from the Bay Area garnered headlines when they led LAPD officers on a 100-mph chase that ended at a shopping center in Sherman Oaks. The trio, police said, were committing thefts in the Mid-Wilshire area.
Hopkins said he had heard “heartbreaking stories after heartbreaking stories” from tourists and others who lost thousands of dollars in valuables. Police, he said, can warn people not to keep anything in vehicles, but tourists sometimes have no choice but to leave luggage in cars.
“I feel awful for these people,” Hopkins said. “It makes me angry that these innocent people are being targeted. It really puts a black eye on our area.”
The Grove has invested in state-of-the-art technology “that enables our security team and law enforcement to assess and respond to suspicious activity in real time, proving to be a deterrent,” the company said in a statement.
As a result of the crime sprees, Hopkins said auto detectives were working more closely with counterparts in neighboring police agencies and in the Bay Area to share photos, license plates and any other intelligence to curb the volume of crimes. The Wilshire Division added two additional detectives to the auto squad and conducted surveillance operations to nab suspects. Additionally, a department helicopter will often patrol the skies over trouble spots at night, Hopkins said.
“We are doing everything we can to stop this,” he said.
In the LAPD’s Hollywood Division, an Oakland gang committed 40 auto thefts in an April spree and used electric scooters to get around. Surveillance video showed one man smashing an SUV window. He then grabbed a bag and handed it to a cohort on a scooter. The stolen goods were being sold in Oakland, and five people were arrested.
Gang members’ exploits are showing up on Instagram, Facebook and other social media. Suspects have exchanged phone messages bragging about the heists and being paid $1,000 for each bag of stolen electronics, jewelry and designer clothes, said Det. Douglas Oldfield of the Hollywood Division. Surveillance video routinely shows suspects lunging through smashed windows because opening the door would activate the alarm, he said.
“It’s very lucrative for them,” Oldfield said. “They make their rounds.”
The sheriff’s West Hollywood station recorded more than 2,000 thefts from vehicles in 2019, Ramirez said. Thieves have targeted the Sunset Strip, Design District, Santa Monica Boulevard and other destinations.
Beverly Hills Police Lt. Scott Dowling described the thefts as “kind of a new crime trend” for the city, which has more than 1,200 surveillance cameras watching the streets. The department is aggressively pursuing suspects, traveling to Oakland to make arrests, he added.
Police have also set up bait cars to catch gang members in action.
“By living up there, they feel this is a safe business model to follow,” Dowling said about the gangs. “We will go after you if you leave a cookie to follow. This is a quality-of-life issue for us. It’s quite a burden.”
Recently, the same crew struck two vehicles in Beverly Hills and another 18 in the sheriff’s West Hollywood area. The suspects’ license plate was flagged for suspicious activity and they were later arrested in Arizona.
On a busy Friday afternoon at the Original Farmers Market, shoppers poured into stores unaware that thieves could be targeting cars. Two visitors from Texas and New Mexico left luggage in the back of their SUV but said they had locked the doors.
Several suitcases could be seen through the back window of Jolie Delmon’s green Cadillac SUV as she and her relatives headed to shop. The Broken Arrow, Okla., resident said she didn’t know about the crime problem.
“That makes sense,” she said. “This is where people shop. I’m glad I just went back and locked my door.”
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that an epidemic of car burglaries in San Francisco over the last few years had led state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) to propose changing the law that allows some break-ins to go unpunished. But the Legislature has balked at expanding criminal liability.
George Gascón, who stepped down as San Francisco’s top prosecutor in October to run for Los Angeles County district attorney, backed closing the loophole. He said tourists were disproportionately affected because they’re likelier to leave valuables in their cars.
“The loophole in the law means that when an arrest is made justice may not be applied equally when the victim is from out of town,” Gascón said in a statement.