The crime is known as "car clouting," "car prowling" and other less polite names, but whatever you call it, thieves who break into cars and steal valuables can ruin a vacation. Good work by several agencies recently nabbed a pair of crooks responsible for a string of vehicle break-ins at Mount Rainier National Park.
In early August the park staff noted an increase in reports of car prowls at Mount Rainier. The break-ins were occurring both on weekends and weekdays, and all occurred during daytime hours. Most of the incidents involved thieves breaking out car windows to snatch bags, backpacks or valuables visible to anyone looking into the vehicle.
Wallets, cash, credit cards, purses, electronics, cell phones, ipods, and other valuables were taken. In one case, a visitor hid her purse under her car seat after she parked her car, only to find it stolen after returning from her hike, leading investigators to consider the possibility the crooks were watching the area to identify possible targets.
Rangers and cooperating agencies decided to attack the problem with a combination of surveillance and "bait cars." One such sedan was loaded with a cell phone, GPS device, satellite phone, digital camera, and camping gear and equipment. It was then parked at the Crystal Lakes Trailhead on Saturday evening August 20 and a park ranger then kept the vehicle under surveillance.
At about 6 a.m. the following morning, the ranger watched as two individuals drove into the parking lot. After looking into the cars parked at the trailhead, one of the suspects broke the window on the bait car and then removed all the valuables, even checking the trunk for more loot. The couple left the parking lot, and the ranger radioed his colleagues to make the stop.
The pair's vehicle was pulled over a short distance away, and a subsequent search found not only all the materials stolen from the bait car, but also credit cards, drivers’ licenses, and a cell phone linked to other car prowls at trailheads in Mount Rainier National Park and the nearby Snoqualmie National Forest.
According to information released by the United States Attorney's Office, Jamie David Spain, 39, and Dawn Marie Gale, 44, both residents of Enumclaw, Washington, were arrested and charged with theft of government property, theft of personal property and malicious mischief. If convicted the defendants face up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Search warrants were served on the suspects residences, which netted a significant number of stolen items, both from thefts in the park and from thefts that occurred in other jurisdictions. Virtually all of the park’s protection staff was involved in this successful operation, which involved many long hours of work.
“I commend the excellent law enforcement efforts of the U.S. Park Rangers and the NPS Special Agent here at Mount Rainier, along with our partner agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the King County Sheriff's Department, for their concerted efforts to apprehend the suspects and safely gather evidence for this case,” said Chief Ranger Chuck Young. “However, the arrest of these individuals will not necessarily end the problem of car burglaries in the park. To avoid becoming a victim of future car burglaries, visitors to Mount Rainier and surrounding areas should continue to take precautions by not leaving valuables in their cars while parking in areas in and around the park.”
Rangers offer the following reminders, which apply whenever you leave your vehicle unattended during a visit to a park ...or any other destination:
• Do not leave any valuables in your unattended vehicle; if you're not going to carry them with you, leave them at home or another secure location if at all possible.
• Do not leave bags or packs, laptop cases, camera cases or any other containers that look like they may hold valuables in your vehicle. If you must leave anything in the vehicle, lock it in the trunk. If your vehicle has a trunk release button or lever in the passenger compartment, lock or disable the release if possible to prevent the trunk from being opened without a key.
• If your vehicle doesn't have a trunk, place items well out of sight before you arrive at the parking area. If you must leave valuables inside vehicles such as a van or SUV, consider investing in a sturdy lockable container that can be secured to the vehicle itself for storage of such items.
• Immediately report suspicious activity you might observe throughout the park to law enforcement officials. Activity to watch for includes individuals who look out of place for the area and who looking into vehicles or sitting in a parked car in a parking lot; a car driving back and forth past a parking area multiple times without clear direction; broken window glass; discarded packs, purses, handbags thrown out on the side of the road.
• Do not intervene if you happen upon a break-in in progress. Immediately notify law enforcement authorities and report your observations. Make note of the suspect's vehicle color, make, model, and license number, along with a detailed description of the subjects and their direction of travel if they flee.