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Street Beat / The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The
Front

Reeling in Car Thieves With a Flashy Lure

February 28, 1996|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people credit the "bait car" to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Jerry Lay, but he acknowledges another source--the ancient Greeks.

"This concept goes way back," said Lay, who works in the Sheriff's Department's anti-auto theft detail.

Back in the Trojan War in about 1200 BC, the way to set up your foes for a nasty surprise was to present them with a giant depiction of a horse bedecked with precious metals. Nowadays all it takes is a set of nice wheels, a solid chrome body and an appropriately rigged ignition.

Bait cars are in vogue, from the LAPD's practice of leaving packages on the seats of cars in malls where car burglars prey, to the Sheriff's Department's rigged car.

It's an auto designed to be left temptingly on high-crime streets and it can be easily stolen. But after about half a block, the doors lock, the engine quits and there is Officer Friendly, with open arms and handcuffs.

It's a good way to get car thieves off the street without endangering the public, officers say.

"It's not entrapment or anything," said LAPD Det. Bob Graybill of the Valley Bureau's auto theft detail. "But you just feel guilty. It's too easy."

Lay got the idea of a bait car from a Costa Mesa police officer at a seminar about two years ago. Now his department uses it from Lakewood to Lancaster, and he estimates it's snared 130 thieves--with only three escaping.

Officials are understandably reluctant to describe the car too finely to reporters or let it be photographed, but Lay says that when undercover deputies leave it on the street, neighbors often call up the department to report that a stolen car was just dropped off.

When the thieves break into it, their actions are recorded by a video camera concealed in the auto. Then, when they start the car to drive away, deputies on stakeout can shut down the engine and lock the doors by remote control.

The crooks' reactions are universal, says LAPD Capt. John Bryan, whose LAPD detail has borrowed the sheriff's car: an unprintable word. Also, "looks of resignation are very common."

Graybill, who also uses the car on loan, says his unit uses it at least twice a year.

"When the crime starts to go up in certain areas, or the gang members start taking over, we slide it in," he said. "The word gets out that the cops are all over the place."

Those arrested are always experienced thieves, not just joy riders, Graybill said. "We're getting the pros."

Lay said the car appeals to the opportunistic thieves and is the safest way to catch these predators. "It's the most controlled environment we can think of," he said.

"It doesn't put the public at risk, it doesn't put us at risk and it doesn't put the suspect at risk."

If a suspect runs, he said, deputies let him go.

Police have always done stings. But there's something about the bait car that brings out the best in a crook. Graybill recalls two teenagers who spotted the car on a San Fernando Valley street and whose talk caught on the video camera showed that this was no new experience.

"The guy and the gal get into the car, laughing," he said. "She wants him to steal it, keeps saying 'Take it, take it, take it.' "

So he does, jumping the ignition and rolling it into the street, where, as police cruisers pull up, it shuts down.

"As soon as the police roll up," Graybill recalls, "she starts yelling at him, saying it's his fault, that he wanted to steal it."

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