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Landlocked Valley Leads County in Boat Thefts

May 12, 1997|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Fernando Valley, long known as an auto theft center, has earned another dubious distinction: It's the boat rip-off capital of Los Angeles.

Authorities say crooks engage in late-night fishing expeditions through Valley neighborhoods, trolling for pricey recreational vessels that sell for as much as $100,000, or more.

With its affluent residential enclaves and proximity to Southern California lakes, the area provides near-perfect conditions for crooks seeking an easy catch. More boats are stolen in the landlocked Valley than at the county's major boating centers, including Marina del Rey, Santa Catalina Island and Castaic Lake.

"The boats are here, so the crooks come to steal them," said Det. Robert Graybill, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department's Auto Theft Task Force in the Valley, which also handles boat thefts. "It's the shopping mall effect."

Police say they don't have enough officers or training to prevent the boat thefts from driveways and public storage facilities, a crime that unfolds in only minutes.

Accomplished crooks can quickly and quietly hitch a boat to a truck and haul it to an empty garage or deserted warehouse. There, they strip out the engine, seats and other equipment, either to upgrade their own boats or to sell.

Some thieves hide beneath the boat's tarp while they detach engines from the hull, then drag them away.

In the last five years, 369 vessels have been reported stolen in the Valley, accounting for nearly 60% of boat thefts in Los Angeles, according to the state Department of Justice. They comprise one-fifth of the boat thefts in Los Angeles County, the state's leader in such heists.

The figures do not include the hundreds of Jet Skis and similar devices that disappear each year, or the unknown number of uninsured vessels that never get reported, authorities say.

"If you leave your boat in your driveway or on the street, it will be stolen," said Stan Vanderburg, a Chatsworth insurance agent who specializes in boat policies. "It's only a matter of time."

Police say the thieves fall into three categories: amateurs, who take the boats on weekend joy rides; semiprofessionals, who steal for parts; and professionals, members of organized rings who scout local docks, jotting down home addresses off documents left in vessels then stealing the boats from neighborhoods days or weeks later.

In some cases, organized rings deliver the vessels to waiting customers in Nevada, Arizona and other states, authorities say. A small percentage of thefts are schemes to defraud insurance companies.

Adding to the crime lure is the growing demand for high-powered boat engines by hot rod enthusiasts. The motors, with only minor changes, can be dropped into "muscle cars" of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Camaros and Mustangs.

"The engines in a lot of these inboard motors, especially the ski boats, are virtually identical to their automotive counterparts," said Chuck Schifsky, editor of Car Craft, a monthly magazine of home-built cars.

Police investigators say boat owners often fail to take adequate precautions against theft--a criticism that some boat theft victims willingly accept.

Alan Shepard of North Hollywood is typical.

Shepard used to park his sleek $25,000 bass fishing boat in his driveway, with the trailer hitch facing the street. He did not install locks or chain the boat down, despite having alarms on three expensive cars also in the driveway.

On a foggy night last November, the crooks struck, working so quietly that Shepard's two Rottweilers slept undisturbed.

Shepard was stunned to find his boat missing, and angry that he hadn't taken steps to protect it.

"It was my own stupidity and I'm the first to admit it," said Shepard.

Investigators found his boat 10 days later in Van Nuys. Thieves had gutted the vessel of its $10,000 outboard motor, instrument gauges, compartment locks, vents and cleats. They carved holes in the stern to rip out wiring, and took. thousands of dollars worth of fishing rods and other equipment.

Shepard has a new fishing boat in his driveway. But this time, he has taken precautions: The trailer is chained to a metal post. Steel cables run through the trailer's wheels to prevent it from moving, and a thick lock secures the tip of the hitch. And there's a 1,000-watt motion-sensitive floodlight.

"If they want this one, they are going to have to work real hard," Shepard said.

Law enforcement experts say the large number of auto thefts make boat thefts a lower priority.

Last year, 1,919 boats were reported stolen in California, compared to 235,282 cars. In Los Angeles, 139 boats were reported stolen, compared to 44,462 cars.

Many law enforcement agencies, including the LAPD, assign boat thefts to their auto theft units.

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