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Driven Crazy : Crime: Car theft is on another upswing. For the detectives who track stolen autos--an overwhelming job in the best of times--the task is becoming truly Sisyphean.


Trying not to grin, Detective Lou Koven pulled a steering wheel from a stolen car out from under his desk, with one of those much-advertised anti-theft bars still attached--and still locked.

"They just popped off this wheel with the bar on it," Koven said of the car thieves, "put their own wheel on and drove off."

Koven and the other car-theft detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department's Wilshire Division keep the supposedly theft-proof wheel around mostly as a source of amusement. But it also serves as a reminder: When car thieves are determined to steal a car, they almost always succeed.

Car theft on the Westside is on another upswing. For the police, it means that the task of the auto theft detective--an overwhelming job in the best of times--is becoming truly Sisyphean.

In Santa Monica and the unincorporated areas of Marina del Rey and the View Park/Windsor Hills area, authorities say the number of car thefts has jumped more than 20% so far this year compared to 1990.

In Los Angeles, hundreds of cars are stolen every month in each of the four LAPD divisions on the Westside, and each has reported an increase--most at a far greater rate than Los Angeles County overall, which has experienced about a 2% increase over last year, according to Sgt. Joe Palmer of the California Highway Patrol's vehicle theft section.

Palmer says it should not come as a surprise that the Westside is fertile ground for car thieves.

"If you're the thief," he said, "you'd hang around the Marina, Beverly Hills and the Wilshire District, because that's where you'd find the higher-class cars."

So far this year, 1,596 cars have been stolen in Santa Monica, up from 1,322 cars at this time last year. "We're losing them faster than we can count," Officer Virginia Spring said. "We're basically all overwhelmed, all of us (law enforcement agencies). Here, we're definitely outgunned."

Sheriff's Detective John Vernon said car theft is the single worst problem facing authorities in Marina del Rey, where expensive cars are often parked in unsecured apartment garages.

"For a car thief," Vernon said, "it's heaven."

Culver City's car-theft rate has dropped 14%, and Malibu's has stayed about the same, authorities said. In Beverly Hills, car theft has been rising steadily for the last three years, but remains "not really a major problem," according to police spokesman Lt. Frank Salcido. In the first 10 months of 1991, there were 217 car thefts, up 8% from the year before.

But in the city of Los Angeles, police are particularly swamped, and nowhere more so than in Wilshire Division.

The division is a mostly affluent area, including the mansions of Hancock Park. It is generally bounded by La Cienega Boulevard on the west, Normandie Avenue on the east, the Santa Monica Freeway on the south and Beverly Boulevard on the north.

Wilshire usually ranks second in the entire city in the number of cars stolen, and is surpassed only by Rampart Division, directly to the east. But Rampart has seven detectives and one supervisor working auto theft, and Wilshire has had to make do with two or three.

It is up to the division's handful of detectives to not only find the hot cars and solve the cases, but to try to cut down on the voracious appetite for stolen cars by busting the "chop shops" and parts dealers that pay good money for them.

Each month, as many as 550 cars are stolen in Wilshire, compared to about 300 a month just a few years ago, said Detective John Marzullo, head of the auto theft detail. In addition, he said, about 50 luxury cars are stolen at gunpoint each month, in which case the crime is classified as an armed robbery. About 500 more cars are broken into or vandalized.

In October, 564 cars were stolen, "most of them from right off the street," Marzullo said. This year could be a division record: 5,355 cars already have been stolen, a 3.7% increase from last year.

In his office Monday morning, Marzullo tried to discuss car theft, but his phone lines kept lighting up. The results of another busy weekend for thieves were streaming in: Some cars stolen in Wilshire had been found in other parts of town, while reports of other cars stolen from within the division were coming in, as were as reports of captured suspects. Meanwhile, hot cars found in Wilshire had to be traced back to where they were stolen, so those police departments could begin working the cases.

With his meager staff, Marzullo said, it is just not possible to do the kind of legwork needed to solve cases.

"We can't get out on the street and do what we used to," Marzullo said. "We just don't have the time."

As a result, police just try to stay afloat in a sea of stolen cars. About 86% of the cars stolen in Wilshire are ultimately recovered, Marzullo said, but in many cases it is only after they have been stripped, sometimes all the way down to the frame.

And he said only about 12% of stolen car cases are solved, with suspects identified and cases filed.

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