Officer Michael Stark has an uncanny knack for finding stolen cars. Some of his fellow officers in the Bell-Cudahy Police Department joke that "hot" cars actually talk to him. Others accuse Stark, a 13-year veteran of the force, of being a human bloodhound able to sniff out heisted vehicles. Still others say he is just lucky.
Take the other night, for instance.
About 1:45 a.m., Stark turned his cruiser onto Atlantic Avenue and slowly headed south toward Cecilia Street in Cudahy.
He spotted a gold-colored, late-model Cadillac parked along the side of the otherwise deserted thoroughfare. The dirt-caked car looked abandoned and immediately sparked his suspicion. There was something odd about it, something that jogged his memory.
Stark radioed the license number to police headquarters, then continued down Atlantic to make a quick pass through a nearby commercial area. When he returned 15 minutes later, the Cadillac was gone.
Another officer reported seeing the car heading north--just as the police dispatcher confirmed Stark's hunch and radioed back that the car had been stolen in Fullerton about a week before. Within minutes, the car was recovered and its driver arrested.
"I don't know what it was," said Stark, 36. "It just didn't look right."
Coming off duty a few hours after the arrest, Stark was made guest of honor at a surprise party and given a special award by the California Highway Patrol for his record as an auto-theft sleuth.
According to Bell-Cudahy Sgt. Tony Dannan, Stark has nabbed 38 stolen cars since January--more than all his fellow officers will probably find by year's end.
It is no small accomplishment in a county that leads the nation in car thefts. The CHP reported that 107,414 vehicles were stolen in the county last year, one every five minutes.
It is a crime that touches not only the car owner but everyone else who pays an automobile insurance premium. According to American Automobile Assn. officials, insurance companies statewide paid about $800 million in stolen-auto claims last year.
Stark is the first Bell-Cudahy officer to receive the "10851 Blue Pin," which the CHP has been awarding to California law enforcement officers since 1980. The award, named for the California stolen vehicle code number, was instituted to encourage officers to keep an eye out for auto thefts.
About 275 pins have been awarded to state and local officers who have good recovery records. Some officers have garnered more than one award. Most recipients have been members of the CHP itself.
To qualify for a pin, an officer must, during a 12-month period, recover six stolen vehicles, each leading to an arrest, or recover 12 vehicles that lead to at least three arrests.
In February alone, Stark recovered 15 stolen vehicles and arrested three suspects within the three square miles of Bell and Cudahy. Most of the cars were stolen outside the city, some outside the state.
"No one (in the Bell-Cudahy force) has gotten near that kind of productivity," said Dannan.
Sgt. Fritz Grimsley of the CHP agreed. Stark "obviously has shown a lot of interest in vehicle thefts," he said, noting that Stark recovers an average of eight vehicles a month. Grimsley added that "some of these guys do have a sixth sense" for finding stolen cars.
Stark explains his knack this way:
"When I was a rookie, I had a lieutenant who told me, 'Always take copious notes,' " he said, stretching out the word copious . "I'll never forget that."
Stark carries a thick notebook that he updates weekly with dozens of descriptions and license numbers of vehicles stolen throughout Southern California. He also uses a memory aid that, for example, helped him recover the Cadillac. He creates a mental picture of the car. "It's not the details, necessarily," he said. "If I can picture it in my mind, I will see it on the street."
That method has helped Stark not only find more cars but solve other crimes as well.
Five years ago, Stark said, he broke up a series of Smart & Final Iris Co. grocery store robberies. While on routine patrol, he saw a vehicle that matched the description of a getaway car seen leaving one store. He stopped the car and arrested the driver, who was eventually convicted.
"He was driving down the street, and I just happened to notice the car--I committed it to memory," Stark said.
Another time, Stark remembered the description of a South Gate bank robbery suspect when he noticed a man working on an orange Chevy Nova at a corner service station. The man was arrested and later convicted.
Dannan said he hopes Stark's award will "inspire other officers to be more attentive and diligent" in finding stolen cars. "There are a lot of stolen cars out there," he said. "It's an incentive to be alert to find stolen vehicles, to gain the skills."