Felicia Jones parked her 1979 Toyota one afternoon last month on Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park's busy shopping district. The 23-year-old Los Angeles housewife returned shortly to find her car missing.
"I just couldn't believe it was gone," Jones said. "I wasn't gone for more than about 30 minutes."
But bold, daylight car thefts are typical in Huntington Park.
"The auto theft in this city is unbelievable," said Lt. Paul J. Catani, chief of the Huntington Park Police Department's detective bureau.
The city had the ninth highest per-capita rate of motor vehicle thefts in the nation in 1988, the last year for which a national ranking was available, according to the National Automobile Theft Bureau. That year, Huntington Park reported 1,505 thefts, or 26.2 vehicles per 1,000 residents.
Newark, N.J., topped the list in 1988 with 14,559 thefts, or 45.6 car thefts per 1,000 residents. Los Angeles was 37th with 57,331, or 16.9 car thefts per 1,000 residents.
The numbers were even worse for Huntington Park in 1989, when 1,662 vehicles were stolen, a ratio of 27.9 thefts per 1,000 residents.
Poverty in Huntington Park, which is one of the nation's poorest cities, a steady stream of cars on Pacific Boulevard and a bare-bones Police Department contribute to the problem, police officials said.
The median household income in Huntington Park was estimated to be $15,481 in 1985. The countywide figure was $23,905.
Detective Ronald Farris, the city's only auto theft investigator, said there apparently are no well-organized auto theft rings operating in Huntington Park, a city of about 59,000. The majority of thefts are committed by youths who take a stereo or other parts before dumping a car, he said.
Farris said one juvenile was carrying a shopping list when he was arrested.
"He had a list of who he sold to, how much and who wanted what," Farris said. Occasionally, stolen cars are tracked to an area "chop shop," where cars are cut into pieces and sold.
The thefts run in cycles. Chevy Luv trucks from the late '70s and early '80s may be the choice of thieves for several months, and then another model is targeted.
Currently, Nissans and Toyotas are preferred. Toyotas have been vulnerable in recent years, ever since a car thief discovered that a shaved-down key from one Toyota could open others, Farris said.
About 80% of the cars stolen in Huntington Park are recovered within 10 to 15 days, Farris said. The majority of those cars are recovered in South Los Angeles or East Los Angeles, but occasionally a car will turn up in Long Beach, San Pedro or San Diego.
Jones, the housewife who lost her Toyota while she shopped, said officers recovered it in eight days. The car was damaged on one side and a $200 engine part had been stolen.
Pacific Boulevard, a strip of shops, restaurants and movie theaters, is a key reason so many cars are stolen in Huntington Park, Farris said. Shoppers provide a steady stream of cars, and they often park in unguarded lots behind the stores that front the boulevard.
A four-square-block area bounded by Zoe, Florence, Rita and Rugby avenues is particularly vulnerable. Pacific Boulevard runs down the middle.
"That's where the bulk of cars are taken, and they're taken from noon to 5 o'clock," Farris said.
The city's many alleys, where residents often park, also are attractive to car thieves.
Catani said the Police Department has been unable to reduce the auto theft rate because it has too few officers. "Our main problem is manpower," Catani said. "High visibility is a high deterrent to auto theft."
Police officials will ask the city to hire a sergeant and four motorcycle officers next year to attack the problem of auto thefts, Catani said. The request probably will be turned down. Last October, financial problems forced the city to lay off 25 employees.
Huntington Park is an extreme example of a statewide trend, according to a California Highway Patrol spokesman.
Statewide, 267,229 vehicles were taken in 1988, a 15.5% increase over the previous year. There were 114,785 motor vehicles stolen in Los Angeles County in 1988, up 6.9% from 1987. Nine out of 10 of those vehicles were cars, pickup trucks and vans, the spokesman said.
A survey of 11 Southeast area cities revealed increases in auto theft in all but one.
During 1984-85, thieves took 473 vehicles in Lakewood, compared to 1,002 in 1988-89. Similarly, vehicle thefts for Downey jumped from 605 in 1985 to 1,211 last year. Detectives in several of the cities said they cannot pinpoint any one reason for the increase.
Several cities have been moving recently to curb auto thefts.
Last November, Lakewood started its Auto Watch program, which is patterned after a program in New York City.