Central Alberta residents mobilize to fight vehicle theft wave: 'Everybody's keeping their eyes out'
Police say rural crime watch groups are playing an important role in preventing vehicle theft
Jean Bota winces as she talks about a vehicle theft earlier that morning. A man was seriously injured on a rural property outside Red Deer when he was assaulted by someone who stole his truck.
"It concerns me. Our law enforcement. Our citizens. This is very serious stuff," said Bota, a Red Deer County councillor who has developed a reputation as a crime prevention advocate.
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The RCMP say vehicle theft rose 33 per cent between 2014 and 2015 in their central Alberta rural policing district. While not the highest rate in the province, it has become a big talker in these parts.
Bota and others in the area say they're stepping up their efforts to try to tackle rising property crime and vehicle theft in some central Alberta communities.
"If you want to fill a hall, just let the neighbourhood know it is a crime meeting," said Bota. "Because you're going to have a lot of people there."
Facebook groups track stolen vehicles
Many are taking to social media as a way to address the problem.
Some central Albertans have started Facebook groups to track stolen vehicles and provide forums for people to vent. Jason Hives is one of the administrators with two of those groups — Red Deer and Area Stolen Vehicles as well as Red Deer Stolen Vehicles. He says he got involved because he was fed up seeing friends, family and neighbours who were affected by property crime.
"Everbody's reporting. Everybody's keeping their eyes out. We're spread out," he said.
The groups have attracted thousands of members over the past year. Hives says they're spotting stolen vehicles around Red Deer as well as rural roads and communities across central Alberta.
"We try to help people who have lost their item or their vehicle and we post it and try to get it out there as soon as possible. If we get it in there within an hour or two hours, people have a better chance of seeing it, spotting it and report to police or even the owner."
Jean Bota says community and crime watch groups are working with police to educate rural residents. She's seeing more cameras, gates and security systems on farms. But they're also running into to some old country habits.
"Our good-heartedness is starting to bite us.' - Jean Bota
"They are soft targets and it's like we've had RCMP that have been at a lot of our meetings say that our good-heartedness is starting to bite us because we're leaving things open. We're leaving keys in vehicles and tractors. We're not reporting things," she said."
Yvette Brideau is the president of the Benalto and Area Crime Watch Society west of Sylvan Lake. The area has also seen a big spike in vehicle thefts. She says part of the solution is getting rural residents to communicate more often.
"Take precautions. Don't put your garage opener in your vehicle. Remove anything of value from your vehicle."
'I've never seen it get to this extent': business owner
Brenda Neufeld has a show room packed with motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles. She says her business has been hit by thieves.
She's the general manager at Turple Brothers Limited, a large power sport dealership that sits along Gasoline Alley on the south end of Red Deer. The company's roots in this community go back six decades when her father and uncle started the business.
"I've never seen it get to this extent. It's very sad when it gets to this point, when it comes to acts of desperation," she said.
Neufeld says they've seen shoplifting, smash-and-grabs and have had some staff and company vehicles stolen from their lot. She's even seen thieves use stolen vehicles to commit the crimes.
"It's extremely frustrating and it's hard on morale for everybody because you get to the point where can you trust the person walking through the door? We like to be able to trust everybody. There's a lot of great people in this community," she said.
No single reason behind thefts
The RCMP says there isn't a single reason behind the rise in thefts. However they think an overall population boom in the area could be one factor. Additionally, officers are seeing suspects who are involved with illegal drugs, some who steal vehicles for joy rides and many more who steal them to use for other crimes like robberies and drug deals.
The Mounties say they have also stepped up their efforts by increasing patrols in hot spots using bait cars and working closely with communities and crime prevention groups to get residents to theft-proof their property and report suspicious activity.
Just over a year ago, they also created a special unit called the Priority Crimes Task Force to focus on problems in central Alberta ranging from drugs, and gangs, as well as property crime and vehicle theft. The unit is a joint effort between an investigative team in Red Deer and RCMP detachments across the region. The task force has made several high profile busts during its tenure and has seized weapons, drugs and stolen property.
Sgt. Eric McKenzie is one of the team leaders with the unit. He says the people behind the vehicle thefts range from locals to outsiders and that they've seen very fluid groups that gather for periods of time to steal and then disperse.
They'll drive around until they find one they need or want ...- RCMP Sgt. Eric McKenzie
McKenzie says he sees the occasional offender who brings a higher level of sophistication to the crime. One suspect from the past stands out.
"He was stealing like close to ten a day by himself and doing this business where he was taking them, stashing them throughout the greater Red Deer area," he said. "And then selling the keys or telling them [customers] this is where it's at, this is how you start it and so they could go out and commit crimes."
Combing rural roads
McKenzie says most aren't that complex. He also has seen several suspects who leave larger communities to comb rural roads for target vehicles.
"They'll drive around until they can find the one they need or want, and they'll try to grab it and whether it's in Sylvan, Red Deer, Blackfalds, Innisfail — it doesn't matter to them," he said.
"They may choose to go to a community they're more familiar with or someplace they have no connection to. But mostly they want to be familiar with the community to again avoid detection, know how they're going to be able to drive away and escape if police do come to catch them."
Bota says the police are doing the best they can, but also have to patrol large areas. She says she'll keep organizing meetings and spreading the word about locking up and reporting suspicious activities.
"They're all good communities, and we just need to take our power back," she said. "Because we've allowed it to slip away."