Last year, there were 501 vehicle thefts in the two jurisdictions — 314 in the city, 187 in the county. And there was more than one auto burglary per day in Kingsport, 504, and nearly one every other day in Sullivan County, 162.
According to police, victims of these crimes typically make themselves a mark.
In the cases seen by local law enforcement, cars aren’t being hot-wired. Windows are rarely shattered to snatch a purse.
Instead, unsuspecting people are leaving the proverbial door wide open or valuables in plain sight, which tempts unscrupulous passersby.
“In the vast majority of motor vehicle thefts, the vehicle that was stolen had either been left unlocked with the key in the vehicle, oftentimes with the key actually in the ignition and the vehicle running, or the suspect had been allowed easy access to the vehicle’s key in an unsecured or minimally secured location,” said Tom Patton, public information officer for the Kingsport Police Department.
Added Lt. Joey Strickler with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office: “Check and then double check to make sure that you lock your vehicles, and make sure you do not leave valuable items in the vehicle. Be mindful that thieves are selective sometimes in what they are looking for. That is wallets, handbags, any type of book bags, medication, firearms, computer bags.”
A little over a month into 2019, 34 vehicles have been stolen and 36 have been burglarized in Kingsport. The SCSO reports 13 such thefts and 13 burglaries.
Again, most victims left unlocked doors and keys in the vehicle or iPhones and purses on seats or floorboards instead of in the trunk.
Two of the more brazen cases involved unattended vehicles left running.
On Jan. 16 at a West Stone Drive market, a man went inside to pay for fuel, then exited to find a woman driving his Honda Civic away from the pumps, nearly striking him.
On Jan. 28 on West Valley Drive, a resident left her car warming outside as she prepared for work. About five minutes later, she heard the vehicle leaving, then looked out to find it missing.
Locked and loaned
SCSO Capt. Andy Seabolt suggested that when warming your car unattended on cold mornings, lock the doors, but have a spare key for your own reentry.
Patton said vehicle doors are equipped with locks for a reason, and unless you are getting in or out, they always need to be locked. He adds that unlocked vehicles — especially those that are idling or in gear — can also lead to more dire circumstances than theft.
“Leaving the key inside your parked and unoccupied vehicle is asking for trouble,” Patton says. “It allows undeterred access to the vehicle by criminals. It also allows curious children to potentially get behind the wheel, which could obviously lead to tragic results.”
In reviewing police records, the Times News has also noticed trends of “borrowed” cars reported as stolen.
While those cases aren’t as blatant as theft via a complete stranger, police urge members of the public to be careful about lending their vehicles. A casual or new acquaintance — or anyone in legal trouble — might not be the best choice for operating your vehicle without supervision.
Of Sullivan County’s 187 motor vehicle theft cases in 2018, 85 were recovered. Of the 314 stolen in Kingsport, 271 were located.
According to Patton, vehicles are typically recovered days or weeks later, often abandoned when the suspect has “no further use for them.”
But by then, already stretched police have devoted time and resources to the case. Meanwhile, the victim has endured insurance claims and hassles of lost transportation, even if just temporarily.
And when the vehicles are recovered, they might not be in the same condition. They are frequently wrecked or vandalized.
Local police said the auto theft and burglary problem is not unique to our area. Jurisdictions across the county are seeing more of such crimes of opportunity.
“KPD has prioritized investigating and preventing these types of crimes, but we are asking for some additional help from the public,” said Patton.
* Never leave your vehicle unlocked while unattended.
* Never leave the key inside your parked and unoccupied vehicle.
* Never leave your car key in an unsecured location.
* Never leave your vehicle running unless you are actually in it.
* Never leave items of real or perceived value in plain sight inside your vehicle.