Grand Theft Anchorage: Diary of a stolen car (Watch the full series here)
Thieves have stolen a record-breaking 2,400 cars across Anchorage this year, striking in every corner of town and overwhelming police.
But just what happens when
car is taken? Who can you turn to and what does it take to get it back?
This is the diary of an Anchorage car theft, as told by Channel 2 anchor Rebecca Palsha and her husband, investigative reporter Kyle Hopkins, who woke up one morning in mid-September to find the news had hit close to home.
After a late-night visit to the gym, Kyle parks our 2009 Hyundai SUV in the driveway. It’s our family’s only car, bought used from Kyle’s mom and we’re still getting used to driving it. We think of our neighborhood as safe … but are in the habit of locking the SUV after a car break-in years earlier.
As far as we know, we have the only key.
A neighbor’s surveillance camera clicks on. A person wearing a backpack can be seen slowly circling cars on foot at the end of our block.
Two blocks away, a camera shows someone trying the door of another neighbor’s car.
Cameras show the prowler, apparently a woman, burglarizing yet another car in the same neighborhood. The homeowner later wakes to find a credit card and ID stolen.
Rebecca looks out the window and realizes our car is missing from the driveway. A bicycle was left in its place.
Kyle calls 911 and is told to call a different number to report the theft. The APD employee on that line takes our report and recommends that we ask for people to be on the lookout for our car on Facebook groups like Stolen in Alaska and Scanner Joe.
“Because citizens are really upset that this keeps happening,” the police employee explains.
Ask cab drivers too, she said, as they will sometimes keep an eye out for missing vehicles in exchange for a reward. At one point, Kyle asks what happens next. Will police actively look for our SUV?
“They won’t go send an officer for just one vehicle,” the APD employee replies.
We walk our daughters to school and take the long way home, hoping the car was abandoned somewhere nearby.
We consider taking a taxi to work. The first of several friends calls to offer the use of her car, and we gladly accept. Kyle posts to his personal Facebook page, asking friends to watch for the SUV and its distinctive silver luggage rack.
From work, we call taxi companies to ask if they will help. One company takes the plate number and description. We tell them we will pay $200 to anyone who recovers the car. Another company says its drivers are no longer allowed to look for stolen vehicles for safety reasons.
A Facebook tipster says she saw the car while walking to work near Spenard Builders Supply on Tudor. Kyle drives the area, seeing nothing.
Becca anchors the 5 O’clock news. Among today's stories: Lawmakers will soon be tackling public safety issues in Juneau and crime rates have increased across the board.
A tipster posts a picture of our SUV parked near apartments off of Dowling Road. We don’t see the post at first. When we do, Kyle drives to the area.
The car is gone from the parking lot but Kyle talks to the tipster. He says that
stolen vehicles were recently seen parked in the same lot, including a special edition Chevy Silverado that the tipster actually tailed to a nearby gas station. It was later recovered but tested positive for meth.
Kyle walks the neighborhood, paying particular attention to a home with several vehicles in the backyard. We are told that people have been seen going from stolen vehicles to the home. When we later check the address with police, they say they have made no arrests there and had no serious police calls to the home in the past year. But … why are so many stolen vehicles appearing on this street?
A surveillance camera in South Anchorage captures video of what appears to be our SUV following a woman as she breaks into a truck.
The owner later messages us: “She walked the whole neighborhood and the guy (in our Sante Fe) was driving from house to house collecting what she was taking."
A different tipster leaves a comment my Scanner Joe Facebook post. He writes, “McDonald's Arctic and Northern Lights.”
The tipster was shot by a burglar in August of last year and tells me that he has been looking for the shooter on local crime pages ever since. He recognized our SUV from the luggage rack, he says. Kyle drives to the McDonald's, but the car is long gone.
We have just arrived to a child's birthday party when a text appears.
“Hey, I think (your) Sante Fe is at the McDonald's on Arctic,” the tipster writes. She sends a photo of our car parked near the drive-through. It’s the
area as the tip from earlier in the day.
Kyle leaves the party and hurries to Midtown, dialing 911 on the way. He's still on the phone with 911 when he pulls up to McDonald’s and sees our car in the parking lot. It’s moving, but merely rolling from one parking spot to another. The car stays there briefly before heading west on Benson Boulevard.
Still on the phone with 911, Kyle follows behind in the car we have borrowed. At the corner of Benson and Arctic, he waits at a red light just a few feet behind our car.
Two men standing on a street corner wave to the driver of our car. They have something in their arms. Kyle continue to tail our SUV as it drives one block to Bering and turns in to a parking lot where the two men load something into the car and climb in.
Trying to keep the Sante Fe in sight, Kyle parks across the street and puts the 911 dispatcher on speaker phone so he can take photos of the men climbing inside. The dispatcher warns him not to do anything foolish.
Our car, now carrying at least four people, parks in the same Carl’s Jr. parking lot where Kyle has been idling a few yards from the drive-through, watching. He asks the police dispatcher to please hurry.
After about 10 to 15 minutes, the first of three APD patrol cars arrives and all three surround the car.
Kyle begins a Facebook Live video and Becca gets the alert on her phone. She is unable to hear very well but can see that our car is in the background of the video, surrounded by police.
We get a first look inside the car and it isn’t pretty.
Needles, used and in packages. Trash. Food. A pair of bolt cutters and a facemask. Our daughters' child seats have been moved to the back, which is now full of clothing and bags.
An officer shows us an REI credit card. It belongs to our neighbor. Other items stolen from her car or home are found among the junk. Days later, we would find her ID card tucked in a compartment that we had never noticed before in the dashboard.
The driver has hung bandanas and hairbands from the rear view mirror and used lipstick to draw a pair of hearts on the windshield.
There is no sign the lock on the door or the ignition have been forced. By this point, we figure Kyle forgot to lock the door but still do not understand how the thief started the car.
We hit the car wash and have the interior detailed, but the smell of cigarette smoke won’t go away. We worry that there are hidden needles and consider having the Hyundai tested for the presence of drugs.
We later learn that our car was one of 60 stolen that week in Anchorage alone … and one of 316 stolen in the month of September.