Sylvan Lake-area vehicle thefts double in year

The RCMP say vehicle thefts in rural areas around Sylvan Lake have jumped by 100 per cent from 2014 to 2015, while central Alberta as a whole has seen a 33 per cent increase.

Police say most of the stolen vehicles are pickup trucks

Rural crime watch volunteers Dave More and Yvette Brideau have seen three vehicles stolen within a block radius in Benalto, Alta., over the past year. They say it's like big-city problems have hit rural Alberta. 'There's a wave that's been happening," says Brideau. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Dave More points past the houses on his Benalto street at a picture perfect view of the Rocky Mountains.

He's an artist, and you sense he savours the image as he smiles and talks about his love for this quiet hamlet just west of Sylvan Lake in central Alberta.

That's why his other observations seem so out of place as he nods at nearby homes.

The Sylvan Lake RCMP arrested a young man in October 2015 after the driver of this stolen pickup truck rammed a police car and led officers on a long chase around the community. (RCMP)

"Right next door, behind us in the alleyway, a truck was stolen a few months ago, and just around the corner a fellow last May, his recreation trailer, still attached to his truck — the whole works was stolen," he said.

"There's kind of an innocence to a place like this, and it feels invasive."

The folks in this community are not alone. From 2014 to 2015, the RCMP says vehicle thefts in rural areas around Sylvan Lake more than doubled — to 94 from 44 the previous year (and up from 10 thefts in 2011).  And there were more than a hundred thefts in Sylvan Lake itself, up from 76 a year earlier.

In Benalto, More and his wife, Yvette Brideau, have seen three vehicles in a one block radius near their home stolen over the past year. The couple has been living here for more than two decades. They say it sometimes feels like big city problems are making their way into the countryside.

"It's in the whole rural area. It's not just in the little municipalities. There's a wave that's been happening," said Brideau as she shakes her head.

Police seeing big increase in thefts

On a broader scale, officers say vehicle thefts during that time frame are up 33 per cent across central Alberta and that it comes as some municipalities are reporting spikes in overall property crimes.

"Certainly around the central Alberta area we've seen property crimes increase, including break and enters, and thefts as well as theft of vehicles," said RCMP Staff Sgt. Gary Rhodes.

Crime Watch groups say they're stepping up efforts to get rural residents to lock their vehicles in light of a recent spike in vehicle thefts. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Rhodes is in charge of the Sylvan Lake Detachment, which polices the popular resort town and the surrounding rural area.  He suggests there are likely several factors behind the statistical spike.

Rhodes says he isn't seeing a direct causal link between the economic downturn and crime rate increases in his area. 

But he said officers are seeing several suspects who are involved with illegal drugs, others who steal vehicles for joy rides and many more who steal trucks to commit other crimes like robberies, break and enters, and shoplifting.

Most of the vehicles are eventually abandoned and recovered.

Rhodes says residents can help by making it harder for the thieves.

"If criminals are targeting trucks, certainly central Alberta is a good place to be because there are a lot of trucks," he said. They drive by, they check out the vehicle, it's maybe running or it's open and the keys are in it. It's easy to steal."

Old country habits dying hard

That's a message that Brideau and More have also been trying to spread as president and secretary, respectively, of the Benalto and Area Rural Crime Watch Society.

"If they're on the street, get them off the street. Put them in the driveway. Put them in your garage. Lock your garage," said Brideau, in a tone that conveys some frustration as she's delivered the warning countless times.

She says old country habits are dying hard among some rural residents still used to leaving doors unlocked and truck or tractor keys in the ignition.

Rhodes is quick to point out that communities in the area are still safe and that many types of crime have actually been dropping. That includes what police call crimes against persons which include assault. He adds that the property crime rates have even been trending downwards in some communities.

Population boom could be fuelling thefts

While the reasons behind the spike are still a topic for debate on acreages across the Sylvan Lake area, many say population growth has to be a factor.

The Town of Sylvan Lake has grown by 4,000 people over the past decade. Nearby communities, including Red Deer have also recorded big gains, especially during the oil boom. Police say more people can mean more crime.

Rhodes doesn't think the recent trend in Sylvan Lake's vehicle thefts will last. After more than three decades on the job, he says rates like this typically fluctuate. Still, he says his detachment has been hearing more complaints.

The Sylvan Lake Mounties have added a detective, increased patrols in hot spots, employed tactics like a bait car and are coordinating more with other detachments and community groups.

'I hear about it all the time'

Tess Blomme works for a farm chemical company and is a regular along these rural roads near Sylvan Lake. She says vehicle theft has become a big talker out here among her clients.

Farm chemical company employee Tess Blomme says vehicle theft has become a big concern among her clients in rural areas around Sylvan Lake. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"I never heard anything from my farmers before, and now I hear about it all the time, in all of the areas of my territory."

Blomme say they're telling her stories of trucks prowling rural acreages and stolen vehicles being used to haul stolen tools and gear from farmyards.

She also has first-hand experience. Her own truck was stolen from outside her Red Deer area home more than a year ago. Parked in front of her house, it was stolen during the night and was discovered six months later in a bog near Sundre.

Blomme shakes her head and says she's seen people walking around Red Deer parking lots in broad daylight checking vehicle door handles. She says all of this has caused her to change some bad habits.

'They break the window or they break into it and they just break the tumbler and just use a screwdriver to start it, so there's not really much you can do."- Bryan Kasha

"When before you'd maybe stop at a gas station or somewhere to run in quickly, I definitely don't leave my vehicle unlocked anymore, even for two minutes."

Bryan Kasha says he always took security precautions at his farm equipment business west of Sylvan Lake but adds it hasn't always helped.

Kasha says they've had licence plates stolen from the property and that thieves stole a company truck three times in three months.

"We have cables through all the equipment and the trucks. They break the window or they break into it and they just break the tumbler and just use a screwdriver to start it, so there's not really much you can do," he said.

Residents need to step up and help

As Dave More scans his neighbourhood in Benalto, he says this crime trend seems so out of place, that residents like him are still left with more questions than answers.

Police say pickup trucks have become a popular target for thieves in parts of central Alberta. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"It's really incomprehensible, actually, because the fact that so many vehicles are being stolen constantly. What are they using them for? I mean, what's the need? They obviously ditch them as fast as they steal them, " said More.

Yvette Brideau says the police are doing what they can, but rural residents need to step up and help.

"The more you know your neighbour, the more you know your community, the more you're aware of what doesn't belong."


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