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Auto Thefts Climb

Johny Sarmiento, 33, of Sterling Park, left his home about 10 p.m., Saturday night, two weeks ago, and when he returned three hours later, his 1990 Toyota Camry was gone.

He said he was more angry about the stolen tools inside than losing the car. "The car, I just paid $700," he said. "I had more [invested] in tools than the car cost me."

Sarmiento said he could buy another car, but it would be difficult to replace the $1,000 inventory of tools that he built up in the past five years.

Although the final count won't be available until early January, authorities say the number of car thefts in Loudoun County has risen this year, with the greatest concentration in Sterling Park and Sugarland Run.

CRIMINALS ARE STEALING average-priced motor vehicles, "not the high-end vehicles you come to expect," Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the county Sheriff's Office, said last Thursday.

The number of auto thefts has fluctuated in the past five years, with 177 in 2001, 166 in 2002, 202 in 2003, 183 in 2004 and 177 so far in 2005.

The value of the cars and trucks stolen in 2004 was about $1.49 million, nearly the value so far in 2005, which is $1.5 million. Investigators have recovered 60 percent to 65 percent of stolen cars this year, Troxell said.

"They used good old-fashioned gumshoe police work," he said.

Sometimes the thieves were stealing cars and trucks from other counties and arrests resulted from information sharing among the jurisdictions, he added.

Criminals are stealing average-priced cars, because it's easier than taking high-end cars, investigator Eddie Ankers said. "A BMW, you almost need a key."

Thieves are trading average-priced cars for drugs in Washington, D.C., or upgrading their own vehicles with rims, spoilers, engine parts, interior amenities or hatch wings. "A group of people will strip a car — and put the parts on their own [vehicle]," he said. "It is not odd to see a $2,500 motor vehicle with $2,000 in parts on it."

Others will sell the parts on the black market, getting 20 percent to 30 percent of their actual value, he added.

THEFTS IN THE past three months included a 1997 black Toyota 4Runner, a 2000 Buick, a 1995 Acura Integra, a 1994 gold Mazda MPV, a 1992 Isuzu Rodeo, and a 1990 Toyota Camry, all in Sterling. Sterling Park and Sugarland Run are Sterling communities.

Criminals also have stolen utility vehicles from construction sites, Troxell said.

Ankers said he believes that most of the offenders are between the ages of 17 and 24. Thefts rose during the summer and have tapered off since, he said. There are more crimes during the warmer weather all across the board, he added.

Authorities apprehended two 17-year-old Ashburn boys in October after responding to a report of an auto theft in progress, Troxell said.

"Although nothing is fool proof, there are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of auto theft," Troxell said.

He recommended:

* Always lock the motor vehicle and never leave car keys inside;

* Equip the vehicle with an alarm to deter car thieves;

* Use a security device to secure the steering wheel; and

* Don't leave the car or truck running to warm it up.

THE LOUDOUN COUNTY SheriffÕs Office has nabbed car thieves using its bait-car program. The cars are set up to trap thieves. Once they take the bait — steal a car — investigators can track its location and use remote control to stop the car in its tracks.

Troxell said deputies used bait-car systems last year to make three arrests in two months. "In one of those cases, the Sheriff's Office seized a vehicle, which contained stolen property from prior larcenies from vehicles," he said.

The systems were funded by money or property seized by the Vice/Narcotics Unit.