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Tourists describe ruined L.A. vacations as police work to thwart Bay Area car burglars

surveillance video of thieves
Surveillance video shows thieves stealing from a tourist’s car in Los Angeles in April.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Shannon FitzPatrick was excited to show her husband and two children her grandfather’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame when the family traveled to Los Angeles in July for a wedding.

But while shopping in the Melrose District, the vacation turned into an ordeal that still haunts FitzPatrick. Someone had smashed the back window of the family’s rented SUV and stolen suitcases, backpacks and valuables worth more than $4,000.

“It was frustrating, heartbreaking and seriously scary for the kids, but thankfully no one was injured,” said FitzPatrick, a Florida realtor who grew up in Southern California. “One of the best summer vacations of our lives turned into a nightmare from hell. I still remember the pit in my stomach, the tears and some choice words from my mouth as I stormed down the street in a rage.”

FitzPatrick and her husband, a Volusia County sheriff’s deputy, are among hundreds of tourists in the last year caught up in a new crime wave of smash-and-grab car burglaries at some of the city’s top attractions. The victims describe ruined vacations that have tainted their perception of Los Angeles.

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The Times previously reported that, in a twist, the culprits are out-of-towners from Northern California and not locals.

Police across Los Angeles’ Westside have been working to stop an epidemic of the brazen car burglaries carried out by gang members primarily from San Francisco, Oakland and other Bay Area cities traveling to the Southland to ransack rental cars filled with valuables.

The thieves have committed hundreds of smash-and-grabs, stealing items worth tens of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting tourists. Besides scrambling to replace valuables and passports while being hundreds if not thousands of miles from home, the thefts have led some tourists to warn others about the dangers lurking around Los Angeles.

Rupert Heseltine, the executive chairman of Haymarket Media Group in London, said his family vacation began in Phoenix and moved to Monterey before ending in Los Angeles in April. The family visited shops on Melrose Avenue on their last day in the city. Heseltine removed his camera from his backpack and left the bag in the rear of an SUV.

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They returned to find broken glass near the vehicle. It scared his 15-year-old daughter, who feared thieves were still lurking nearby. He sent his family to a coffee shop, he said. After looking in the SUV, Heseltine noticed the backpack — with their five passports — was missing. Their flight home was scheduled to depart only hours later.

As they waited for police, a shop owner told Heseltine that her surveillance camera recorded the theft. The video showed a woman break the vehicle’s window and grab the bag. A man drove the getaway car.

Heseltine said he was fortunate to get new passports within hours from the British Consulate in Los Angeles. But the crime still left a negative impression on the family, he said.

“It was bloody annoying,” Heseltine said by phone. “It was the last day of our holiday. We got the whole L.A. experience and what goes on there.”

In August, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested Adrian Benton Jr., 20, the driver of the getaway car, LAPD Det. Brent Hopkins said. Benton, from Richmond, pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary from motor vehicles, Hopkins said. The woman who grabbed Heseltine’s backpack has yet to be arrested, he said.

The California Highway Patrol recently created task forces in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area to target the smash-and-grab groups and share information with local police, said Lt. Kevin Domby of the Golden Gate Division.

In October, Bay Area agencies began an operation called Tangled Web to target thieves and fencing operations where valuables are sold, he said. Police have so far made 52 arrests, including some people who traveled to Los Angeles to commit the crimes, he said.

The task forces are working to “detect, deter and dismantle organized vehicle burglary rings that operate up and down the state” and the West Coast, Domby said.

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Deputies in Los Angeles County have increased patrols in tourist spots and are conducting undercover operations to nab suspects, said Lt. William Moulder of the Sheriff’s Department’s West Hollywood station.

He said the thefts are “challenging to combat” because of the volume and because tourists are not aware of the problem. The thieves prey on people who often have no choice but to leave luggage and other valuables in cars during visits, he said.

“It’s hard to send the message to tourists coming into town,” Moulder said. “We’re doing what we can to mitigate it.

In July, a three-member crew from the Bay Area garnered headlines when it 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 Hollywood and the Mid-Wilshire area.

Arrested were Xavier Pittman, 21, and Damillion Davonte Williamson, 22, both of San Francisco, and Jaurice Anthony Laxa, 26, of Daly City. Each was charged with 10 felonies, including seven counts of second-degree burglary of a vehicle, two counts of fleeing police while driving recklessly and one count of vandalism over $400. They also face three misdemeanor counts each of hit-and-run driving resulting in property damage, according to prosecutors.

Even when arrests are made, a loophole in state law 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, also hampering prosecution of the thieves.

FitzPatrick, the granddaughter of James A. FitzPatrick, a travel film producer and director known as the “Voice of the Globe,” said she will probably never return to Southern California.

She said it’s easy for critics to say, “You shouldn’t keep valuables in cars while traveling.” But that can be difficult to avoid, and travelers don’t think they’ll be burglarized in broad daylight at popular destinations. Her family still fears the burglary could result in identity theft.

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“I will warn everyone I know going on vacations with rental vehicles, especially higher-end SUVs,” FitzPatrick said. “It has taken us many months to recover from our losses, and some things can’t ever be replaced.”


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