Warren K. Funk sometimes jokes about arming his car with a double-barreled shotgun that could be rigged so it would fire on would-be thieves.
Probably not a prudent idea, concedes Funk, the support services manager for the city of Monterey Park. But this is what goes through the head of a man who has had three cars stolen in just 2 1/2 years.
One of them, a racy blue Toyota Celica, was even snatched from his reserved parking space right across from City Hall. The next morning, police found its hollowed chassis on a nearby street, stripped to bare metal, minus seats, doors, dashboard, sunroof and steering wheel.
"Going three for three is not a distinction I would particularly like to be known for," said Funk, a retired Air Force major who moved from Northern California to the San Gabriel Valley in 1987. "But I must admit the rapidity with which my cars have been latched onto is certainly something to make you shake your head at."
Funk is not the only one shaking his head. Over the last five years, 15 San Gabriel Valley cities have experienced increases of more than 100% in their rates of auto theft--making it the fastest growing crime in the region.
Virtually no city has been spared, from tiny Walnut, where the number of stolen cars has nearly quadrupled since 1984, to West Covina, whose 1,558 pilfered vehicles was tops in the San Gabriel Valley last year.
Other cities where grand theft auto has more than doubled in the last five years include Azusa, Baldwin Park, Covina, Claremont, Duarte, El Monte, Glendora, La Puente, La Verne, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Dimas and San Gabriel.
"Basically, if you're leaving your car on the street overnight, you're taking your chances," said Monterey Park Police Detective Walt Osman. "It's fair game."
Auto theft in the San Gabriel Valley as a whole has jumped 96% since 1984, from 6,084 thefts to 11,896 in 1988--probably the most dramatic rate of increase in any region of Los Angeles County, according to FBI crime statistics.
The city of Los Angeles, still the stolen car capital of the state with 62,709 vehicles snatched last year, registered a modest 28% increase in that period.
Authorities have no ready answers to explain why the crime has soared so rapidly in the San Gabriel Valley, except to say that the jump has merely brought the area up to parity with the rest of Southern California.
Growth and rapid immigration, the development of large shopping mall parking lots, and the increasingly lucrative used auto parts market all help to make the problem worse, police said.
Perhaps most of all, they added, the courts have been reluctant to throw juvenile auto thieves in jail when detention facilities are already full with hardened gang members, drive-by shooters and crack dealers.
"It's become a low-risk, high-profit crime," said Lt. Chuck Shipley, who heads the vehicle theft unit for the southern division of the California Highway Patrol. "You can go out and steal a $10,000 car . . . and there's a chance you might not even serve time."
Take the nine Vietnamese teen-agers arrested by Monterey Park police last February after detectives observed them, clad in surgical gloves and wielding power tools, stripping two Toyota Celicas in the carport of an apartment complex.
Police alleged that the youths were responsible for stealing at least 25 cars in the previous month, stripping them in their makeshift "chop shop" and dumping the empty hulls on neighborhood streets.
But when Detective Wes Clair tried to get prosecutors to file charges against the nine, he said he was instructed to simply release the youths to the custody of their parents.
Three days later, all of them were arrested again in Santa Ana for allegedly stealing four cars in one continuous spree. They each served about three months in juvenile detention facilities for the offenses, said Clair.
"It's amazing," he said. "There's one 15-year-old kid who I've arrested seven times."
A special directive issued by Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner last June urged his staff to seek maximum penalties in all auto theft cases, but prosecutors say the mostly juvenile offenders still frequently get off without doing time.
"Everybody's overburdened," said Fred Kubik, head of the juvenile division in the Pasadena branch of the district attorney's office. "We view it as a serious crime, but, yes, they do get off too easily."
Of course, police say, it would help if people would lock their cars. One of every five vehicles stolen has either a door unlocked or the keys left in the ignition, the CHP says.
Anti-theft devices, such as alarms or locking bars that hook to the steering wheel, also serve as deterrents, officers say. But many motorists don't think of that until they've already been victimized.
"People just figure it could never happen to them," said Don Schulz, assistant manager in Pasadena of Al and Ed's Autosound, which installs 20 to 25 alarm systems a week. "Very rarely will anyone come here unless they've already been ripped off or a friend has."