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Young car thieves finding their way to southeastern Connecticut

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Someone somewhere in southeastern Connecticut seems to post nearly every morning, lately, that a car was stolen from their driveway overnight, or that neighborhood security cameras captured groups of people trying to break into cars.

The modus operandi of the night-time car thieves has become well known to area police, who have beefed up their midnight patrols and repeatedly implored residents to not leave keys or fobs in the car and to lock their cars and remove any valuables.

"They are coming in groups," East Lyme police Chief Michael Finkelstein said. "When you look at video that neighbors and victims provide, you see multiple cars that pull up. In many cases, the cars are stolen from other places."

Francis J. Carino, the state's head juvenile prosecutor, has seen the videos, too. According to figures provided by the state Judicial Branch, 812 juvenile auto theft cases have come into the court system this year — a nearly 20% increase over last year's figure of 678.

Carino says they are usually looking for high-end vehicles.

"They run up the driveway, check the doors on the nice cars," Carino said. "They'll open the doors, push the start button and, if it starts, they'll drive away."

If the car is locked, they usually move on, though in Newington this past week, thieves smashed the windows of nearly 100 cars in one neighborhood, prompting the mayor to call on legislators to reform juvenile justice policy.

During some of the stealing sprees, the teams of thieves are simply looking for unlocked cars to steal cash and any other valuables they can grab in a matter of seconds.

Two weeks ago, four cars were stolen on the same day in East Lyme, Finkelstein said. Since then, a couple of break-ins have been reported, he said.

Lately, the offenders have been coming to the shoreline from upstate cities, like New Britain or the Hartford area, and hitting several neighborhoods, or even several towns, in one night. Thefts have been occurring throughout the state, and police have been collaborating in trying to stop them.

"You can hear it every night if you listen to the various police agencies (on a scanner), kind of tracking them across the state," Waterford police Chief Brett Mahoney said. "So, we listen to that now."

Police chiefs say it's hard to pin down whether the offenders are members of organized syndicates or just loosely related groups of juveniles and young men carrying out similar crimes. Some of the stolen cars are immediately used for other crimes and found hours later in parking lots, often damaged from crashes or with bullet holes in them. Stolen credit cards are often used immediately.

Carino said he hasn't seen any of the stolen cars being taken to traditional "chop shops," where they are harvested for parts that are resold. He has seen attempts at repurposing the vehicles.

"I've heard of kids stealing a lot of cars, and actually spending the time and money to detail the cars and renting them to their friends," he said.

Police officer injured

Mahoney said Waterford is experiencing the biggest rash of stolen vehicle cases in his 25-year career with the department. So far in 2020, the town has had 25 stolen vehicles compared to 16 in 2019 and nine in 2018. Seventy-eight people have reported having items stolen from their cars, but that number may be low, according to Lt. Nicole VanOverloop, who said many people don't report the minor thefts or will notify an officer they see working on a larceny case in their neighborhood but don't want to make an official report.

The police say the thefts are a threat to public safety and are costly. The most recent case in Waterford, on Nov. 25, left a family without a car, resulted in minor injuries for Lt. Marc Balestracci, and cost the town a police cruiser.

Early that morning, police say three teens from New Britain arrived in town in a stolen car, with a gun stolen from an unlocked car in Middletown. Multiple car break-ins were reported in town, then a resident called to say a silver BMW had been stolen from a home on Jordan Cove Road, according to a police report.

The fleeing car, driven, police say, by 18-year-old Gerard Hines, who had similar cases pending in court, collided with Balestracci's cruiser at the intersection of Route 156 and Great Neck Road. Hines fled on foot into a swampy area, where he was captured in chest-deep water after a sergeant pointed a Taser at him and told him to stop. He was carrying the BMW key fob, about 20 grams of marijuana and more than $1,000 in cash, police said.

The other two suspects, 18-year-old Angel Echevaria and a 15-year-old boy, were removed from the car at gunpoint and placed under arrest. The stolen gun was found on the driver's seat of the BMW.

Hines, charged with 21 offenses ranging from larceny to stealing a firearm and assault on a police officer, remains incarcerated and is being tried as an adult in New London Superior Court.

Echevaria, also being tried as an adult, was released to home confinement on a $25,000 bond and is being electronically monitored. Their next court dates are in January.

The 15-year-old's case was referred to the juvenile court in Waterford. If he is considered a low- or moderate-risk offender, his attorney can apply for a new suspended prosecution program for juveniles charged in car theft cases. If a judge grants him the program, he can use it one time to avoid being prosecuted.

'It's no big deal'

Tasha Hunt, deputy director of juvenile probation services for the Judicial Branch, said the pilot program was launched in October 2019 in response to a public act that was part of an ongoing series of juvenile justice reforms in response to studies on brain development in young people.

To date, the prosecution of 61 youths was suspended so they could participate in the program, she said.

Hunt said the cases are continued for six months while the juveniles work with a contracted provider using a treatment model to address the issues seen while screening juveniles involved in auto theft cases: impulsiveness, anti-social attitudes and behaviors, negative peer associations and family issues, as well as miscellaneous behaviors sometimes associated with delinquency such as marijuana use, anger and aggression, and noncompliance.

The maximum term of detention for children under 18 who are prosecuted in the juvenile court is 30 months in prison.

Mahoney and other police administrators said juveniles are emboldened by the reforms that enable them to avoid prison or other consequences. He added that police are hampered by another new law that doesn't allow officers to pursue cars if they know a juvenile is inside.

They say the young people they arrest are more brazen than ever, and often tell officers nothing will happen to them because of their age.

Carino has heard the same thing.

"They'll tell the cops, 'What are you going to do, put me in detention? All my friends are there. It's no big deal.'"

'Did he make you chase him?'

Fewer juveniles are being detained during the coronavirus pandemic, and even prior to that, the number of juveniles in detention was decreasing.

A judge must determine that juveniles are a threat to public safety before ordering them detained, also looking at whether they have a history of not responding to the court process or are wanted by other jurisdictions.

"I'll get a call and they'll ask, 'Should they be put in detention?'" Carino said. "I'll ask the officer, 'Did he make you chase him?' At that point they become a threat to public safety, as far as I'm concerned. They're unlicensed and driving in a reckless manner."

Carino thinks the increase in juvenile car thefts is related to the technology that makes it easier to steal cars, but said the courts' inability to deal with the cases in a timely manner due to the coronavirus also may be a factor.

"Courts have been pretty much shut down for the good part of a year, so if a kid gets arrested, now there's no immediate consequences for a year," he said.

The number of adult car theft cases for 2020 was not immediately available, but Sean Kelly, supervisor of public defenders at the Geographical Area 10 court in New London, said he hasn't noticed a significant uptick.

k.florin@theday.com

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