Stolen car

A Falls police officer holds an infant left inside a car that was stolen Monday night. The stolen vehicle was located in about 30 minutes with the unharmed child still inside.

It's a troubling trend in the Falls that shows no sign of reversing.

If anything, law enforcement officials say an explosion in vehicle thefts is just getting worse. And it's being fueled by the drivers who are the victims of the crime.

On a daily basis, Falls police are responding to calls of stolen trucks and cars where the vehicles have either been left parked with the motor running or have modern push-button ignitions and left the keys inside.

"We've seen a very large spike in cars being stolen since the end of June and into July, probably one or two a day," Falls Police Criminal Investigation Division Detective Lt. John Conti said. "The vast majority of these are instances were people leaving (the vehicles) running or leaving the keys in them." 

And Conti, who is part of a car theft task force that operates in both Niagara and Erie counties, says, "This is nothing new."

From September 2017 to September 2018, 55 percent of all stolen vehicles in the Falls were swiped because they were left unattended with the keys in the ignition and the motor running or the drivers' just left the keys inside the vehicle.

A review of recent reports from Falls Police patrol officers confirms the disturbing pattern. In recent weeks, convenience store parking lots across the city have become prime real estate for what investigators describe as organized gangs of car thieves to ply their trade.

The reports tend to follow a similar narrative, with the victim telling an officer that they just "ran into the store for a minute to make a purchase" and when they came back out, their car was gone. 

One victim told an officer that he regularly leaves his car running in the parking of lot of a Pine Avenue convenience store while he goes inside to buy his "morning coffee." The victim told the officer he even "turns up the volume on his radio" so he can hear his car while he's inside the store.

The officer noted the victim was alerted to the theft of his vehicle when he heard the music from his radio fading away as the thief drove away.

A Falls woman told police she left her red Dodge Nitro parked in the 2400 block of Willow Avenue, with the keys in the ignition and the motor on, while she went into her home for "literally two minutes."  When she went back outside, her SUV was gone, but in its place lay a blue bicycle, that police believe probably belonged to the car thief.

"People who are stealing the cars know that driver's do this," Conti said. "So now they're hanging out at convenience stores waiting for this. We are well aware that there are people just waiting at the stores and then driving the cars off."

Conti says a favored destination for the stolen vehicles is Buffalo.  

In an incident at a Hyde Park gas station on Wednesday, a 54-year-old man told police that he parked his car at the pumps and went inside to pay for his fuel. When he came out, the car was being driven away.

The victim said he chased after his Cadillac SLS with another motorist, but lost sight of the vehicle as it went onto the I-190 heading toward Buffalo.

Conti said investigations show that vehicles taken to Buffalo often end up being sold or swapped there and then used in crimes.

"One car that was stolen here and recovered in Buffalo was used in a drive-by shooting," Conti said. "They're being brought to Buffalo for a purpose."

While in the past that purpose may have involved going to a "chop shop" be cut into parts for re-sale, Conti says that's less common now.

"You really don't see where people are chopping cars," he said. "There may be some where they take the tires, the rims or high tech electronics, but most of (the stolen vehicles) are taken cause they were left running (without regard to their parts)."

With an estimate that 85 to 90 percent of vehicle thefts now are because of vehicles left running and unattended, Falls police have begun to aggressively ticket drivers for the traffic law violation of leaving a vehicle unattended. 

"You would hope people would learn, we've been preaching this for years," Conti said. 

The veteran investigator said he has long worried that grab and go car thieves would end up taking vehicles that were not only left unattended, but were left with young children in them. It's a concern that was realized on Monday night.

Just after 10 p.m. the father of an 8-month-old boy told police his car had been stolen after he left the vehicle running while he went into a corner store at 19th Street and Ashland Avenue. The child was in his car seat, in the back seat of the vehicle.

Police flooded the area, searching for the stolen car and the baby inside. About 20 minutes after police received the call, they located the vehicle, and the baby, a short distance away in the 600 block of 17th Street.

The child was uninjured. But investigators charged a 13-year-old boy with stealing the car and, they said, it was not the first time the teen had stolen a vehicle.

The same 13-year-old, detectives said had stolen a car left running outside the same 19th Street and Ashland Avenue store on July 10th. Investigators believe that car, like so many others, ended up in Buffalo.

"You have 13 and 14-year-olds taking these cars and they have very little driving experience," Conti said. "And then they drive them to Buffalo on the Thruway and think of the hazard that is. That's why we (ticket) people for unattended vehicles."

Recommended for you