24. Car Thief Not the Brightest Bulb

by H. W. Moss

The first car left in the parking lot out back was a green SUV.

It arrived some time in January and it took two days before my neighbor, Bob Sites, decided to call the police and give them the license plate. Sure enough, stolen from up the hill on Bernal Heights while the driver was loading it to take a friend to the airport.

The police towed the SUV away but there was a lot of debris left behind: floor mats, broken plastic dashboard parts, a mountain bike which I picked up and took inside so it would not rust. I was able to return the bike to its owner, but the computer with all her important files was lost forever, the woman who came and picked it up said.

The second vehicle arrived less than a month later, a grey Jeep. Same parking space. It was in the lot one day before Bob asked the police if it was stolen. He was starting to get the picture. The police thanked him for a fast recovery and said, “Hey. Good call.”

It had been taken from a street in San Francisco, but was registered in Mountain View. More of the same type of debris was left behind, but no bicycle this time.

On February 22 Bob found a third SUV in the exact same parking slot.

This time there was someone sleeping in it.

Bob phoned Lieutenant Gary Jimenez who had left his business card the last time. The police arrived and the perpetrator ran. During the chase the thief, for that is what he was, dashed through a nearby senior citizen’s complex, broke into an apartment where he was apprehended. This added “possible possession of burglary tools” to his grand theft charge.

Not to mention the fact he scared the living daylights out of the woman into whose home he ran.

Joe Cheerico (the name has been changed to protect the guilty), 19, was supposed to appear in court on March 20 for his hearing. On March 9 he was again apprehended for the same type of grand theft, “taking a vehicle without the owner’s permission.” At that time he was also charged with five counts of “receiving known stolen property” and for being an unlicensed driver who did not stop and who resisted arrest.

Three days later, on March 12, that case was dismissed for lack of evidence without a hearing. As for the first case, the one where he was caught napping in our parking lot, well, Joe failed to show up for the hearing and a bench warrant was issued. The case lies waiting for him to get caught again.

Joe is probably not the brightest bulb on the planet. After all, he was found asleep in the comfort of an SUV which he did not own. Besides being real dumb, nodding out inside stolen property is considered possession which is a misdemeanor. When interviewed by Lt. Jimenez, Joe said he takes cars for fun.

“He’s not an expert at stealing cars,” Jimenez told me. “He’s an opportunistic thief. He walks down the street testing door handles until he finds a car with keys in the ignition.”

Or he simply watches someone double park, go inside, return to find their vehicle gone.

The case that was dismissed was reviewed by Assistant D.A. Melody Schallon who spoke hypothetically about prosecuting an auto theft.

“I have to show he knew the car was stolen,” said Schallon. “Just because we find a person inside a car does not mean we can prove his state of mind. If there are keys in the car that doesn’t mean he has any guilty knowledge. We can’t show he has a propensity to do this. Asleep inside the vehicle is at best a misdemeanor.”

Schallon said a case might be provable if there was a broken window, wires crossed, the ignition smashed. All anyone has to do who is found inside a stolen vehicle with the keys is say he did not know it was stolen.

Fingerprints, a function of the police investigation, are almost never taken in an auto theft primarily due to the cost involved, Schallon said.

So here is the warning all drivers should heed: Do not double park with the engine running. Another word to the wise might be: Do not leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition.

A lesson has been taught here. That lesson is a perfect example of how our court system fails. A corollary to that would be: Neither the police nor the courts take grand theft auto seriously.

At the very least it is cause for dubbing Cheerico “Teflon Joe.” All he has to do, when and if he is ever caught again behind the wheel or caught riding in a vehicle not the driver’s own, is say he did not know the car was stolen.

In any event, you should be made aware that he is out there now just waiting to fall asleep in your car.