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Sean Fritter stands for a photo with his Chevy Suburban in the parking lot where it was stolen and later recovered, as seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Denver, Colo. The truck was broken into and hot-wired while he was working an evening shift and was recovered hours later. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

When Denver police arrested Illya Culpepper on April 22 last year in front of the Belcaro Motel on Colorado Boulevard, after growing suspicious of the Chevrolet Suburban he was driving, it was a bit of fortuitous timing. Only nine minutes had passed since the car's owner had reported it stolen.

Officers would learn Culpepper had stolen the vehicle hours earlier from a liquor store parking lot in Centennial, jacking the car's ignition with a screwdriver. The car's owner discovered it missing when he left work at the store.

That was one of four times in about a two-month stretch in 2021 Culpepper would be arrested for car theft in Denver alone, all within a few miles of each other.

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Sean Fritter stands for a photo showing the two sets of keys he has to use for his Chevy Suburban after it had its door lock destroyed while being stolen, as seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Denver, Colo. The truck was broken into and hot-wired while he was working an evening shift and was recovered hours later. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

Three of those times he was arrested just off of Colorado Boulevard, adding to a total of at least six times Culpepper was arrested on suspicion of car theft between 2014 and last year. He eventually received two years of probation for those four in Denver, but only two of his pleas actually included a car theft charge.

Right now Culpepper is serving a four-year Department of Corrections sentence for a 2021 car theft case in Douglas County. Online inmate records indicate he is currently in community corrections.

Based on court records, it doesn’t appear Culpepper uses the cars he steals to commit other serious crimes such as robbery or burglary, and he's not armed when police arrest him with a stolen car.

Some available documents suggest stealing cars is at least sometimes a subsistence crime for him: He has told police on a few occasions he broke into a car because he was homeless and needed somewhere to sleep, and he frequently pilfers things of value from the cars such as credit cards and cash.

But Culpepper's prolificacy is emblematic of a spiking problem in the metro area that mirrors rising auto thefts in Colorado. And his trail of stolen cars is characteristic of the transient nature of car thefts in the state, frequently stolen in one jurisdiction and found in another.

After a small dip in 2019 over the year before, Colorado’s rate of motor vehicle thefts jumped from 377.2 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 636.6 in 2021, according to an estimate of 2021 statistics by the Department of Public Safety. That amounted to about 37,000 motor vehicle thefts in the state in 2021.

Colorado's sharp rise in known auto thefts have put the state at number one on the list of worst states per capita for auto thefts. More than 500 vehicles are stolen annually per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

However, the FBI generally cautions against using crime statistics to rank locations against each other, because the myriad of factors that influence crime and feed into crime statistics vary by location, ranging from whether law enforcement agencies participate in the uniform crime reporting program at all, to policing resources and enforcement priorities, to residents' willingness to report crime.

The pandemic created a perfect storm of circumstances that made a ripe incubator for car thefts, said Lisa Pasko, the chair of the University of Denver’s sociology and criminology department. Working from home and staying inside meant people were leaving their cars unattended for longer periods of time than usual. Supply chain issues likely increased the value of hard-to-get car parts on the black market.

“We know that crime increases if you have incapable guardianship, suitable victims and motivated offenders. During the pandemic, we had all three really amplified,” Pasko said.

She added that increased housing insecurity brought on by the pandemic likely drove more people to steal cars in order to live in them. The economic downturn led to a rise in first-time homelessness.

An eternal debate

With the increase in car thefts has come more and more personal tales of frustration and disruption from people who have had their car stolen recently or know someone who has. But law enforcement leaders, policymakers and criminologists are divided on where the increase has come from, and how to address it.

Some law enforcement leaders and policymakers say the reason people like Culpepper keep stealing cars over and over again is that pretrial release practices and state penalties for car thefts are too lenient.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen cites a 2014 law that downgraded penalties for motor vehicle theft, based on statewide data showing an overall rise in the crime statistics the very next year.

The 2014 measure lowered auto theft from a Class 4 to a Class 5 felony if the value of the stolen car is less than $20,000. and raised the threshold for a Class felony from $20,000 to $100,000 or more.

Car theft rates in 2015 went up to 294 from 235.2 the year before, while the fluctuations in national car theft rates have been comparatively far less pronounced since about 2012. Pazen believes comparing Colorado to the national statistics, not just against itself, is important for understanding what’s driving rising car thefts.

“It’s not like the Rocky Mountain water that we drink breeds people that steal cars,” Pazen said. “Somebody please explain to me how this is a policing issue, and not a policy issue.”

Use of stolen cars in other serious crimes, such as robbery, is a top concern for law enforcement. Statewide data compiled by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation shows that out of known offenses, property damage and theft from a vehicle were the most common property crimes associated with motor vehicle theft aggravated assaults made from 2019 to 2021, each making up more than 20% of associated property offenses.

“Am I going to go rob the bank in the family's station wagon with my license plate on the back that they could solve the case on, (or) am I more likely to rob the bank in in something that I think gives me that anonymity or less likelihood of me being identified?” Pazen said.

Crime data analysts who spoke with The Denver Gazette counter that established research doesn’t support the notion that penalties themselves act as a deterrent. Rather, deterrence has more to do with certainty of the penalty, they said.

They say how likely someone thinks they are to get caught is a key indicator of that certainty, and point to arrest rates -- also referred to as clearance rates -- as a measure. Among Colorado's three largest cities, Denver police averaged a 10.9% clearance rate for auto theft from 2010 to 2020, the last year for which data is available from the FBI's Summary Reporting System. The Aurora Police Department averaged 9.7% in the same period, and the Colorado Springs Police Department averaged 14.1%.

“The likelihood of being apprehended is where the law criminal law has its deterrent effect. So if people don't think that they're going to be caught, then the deterrent effect is out the window,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

But as with any analysis of available crime statistics, the answer to what conclusions can be made based on arrest rates is "it's complicated." The FBI's crime data repository cautions that making inferences about the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies based on their arrest rates is misleading, because it ignores other measures of police effectiveness.

Police’s ability to solve car theft cases has been hampered by a lack of increase in their manpower to keep up with the rising numbers, said Lakewood Police Cmdr. Mike Greenwell, commander of the multi-county Colorado Metropolitan Auto Theft Taskforce, in a previous interview.

“What law enforcement agencies are left to do (is) they have to pick and choose which ones are more solvable, and they look at solvability factors,” he said, such as physical evidence or other leads. Greenwell said without physical evidence, the likelihood of solving a car theft without a confession is slim.

And measures of police's success in making arrests for car thefts is also likely influenced by situational circumstances outside their control: The frequently transient nature of the crime -- when people steal a car in one jurisdiction and take it elsewhere; whether there's surveillance footage of an incident; whether a thief left fingerprints.

The councilman who proposed a new policy in Aurora seeking to make the city the most punitive place in Colorado to steal a car sees certainty of penalty differently than just arrest rates. The ordinance, which passed on a 7-4 vote at a recent City Council meeting, imposes a minimum 60-day jail sentence for car thefts under Aurora’s municipal car theft ordinance, and up to 120 days for repeat offenders.

“This ordinance seeks to create certainty in penalty. For too long, the state has made a number of crimes more permissive and has led to a skyrocketing number of motor vehicle thefts across our state and across our city,” said At-Large Councilmember Dustin Zvonek at the City Council meeting when the changes passed.

Analysts who say the severity of a penalty has weak links to deterrence frequently use as comparison more mundane offenses. For example, the average person likely doesn't know the exact penalties for speeding.

They don’t suggest that a crime like car theft isn’t much more serious, or that there aren’t some car thieves who have a sophisticated understanding of manipulating the criminal system.

Aurora’s municipal public defender, Doug Wilson, said at a public safety committee hearing in June that the assumption more severe penalties have a stronger deterrent effect conflates individual deterrence with general deterrence. The punishment one person receives is unlikely to stop the next person from stealing a car, he said.

“Yes, the guy is locked up, he's not going to steal another car. And then there's general deterrence that, if you lock someone up, the next guy is not going to steal a car,” Wilson said.

“And that's part of the theory behind minimum mandatories. And there really isn't any data to support the general deterrence theory as it relates to that.”

Although known car thefts rose in 2015, in other instances since at least 1971 when the Colorado legislature has made adjustments to the car theft statute that have implications for penalties, the crime statistics are mixed.

The rate of car thefts per 100,000 people dropped nearly 7% in 1980, the year following the creation of a Class 5 felony category for car thefts — if a person had two previous convictions — that otherwise were Class 2 misdemeanors. When the state legislature doubled maximum presumptive sentences for all felonies in 1985 -- in a piece of legislation known as the Mielke-Arnold bill -- the rate of car thefts rose by more than 12% the next year, which continued a three-year trend upward.

Denver DA Beth McCann, a sponsor of the 2014 legislation, disputed the characterization that it was linked to the following rise in car thefts. She said in a statement the bill brought values for certain offenses "in line with up-to-date economic realities" and had bipartisan support.

"Per the (Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority) data and our experience, people steal cars because of their drug addiction or intention to commit other crimes not their value," she wrote.

"Of note is the fact that the 2014 law was sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican in each chamber, including now-Senator Bob Gardner, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had bipartisan support, and passed unanimously out of all committees."

Brenden Beck, a criminologist at the University of Colorado Denver, said rises and ebbs in crimes have more complex contributors than just one or two factors. He pointed to drops in crime in the mid-1990s after a few years of increases, the causes of which criminologists still don’t agree on, he said.

“And so if we can't even you know, find out what happened globally, across the decade, it's going to be pretty difficult to pin down precise causes of what happened annually in one city like Denver."

To Greenwell, addressing the car theft problem is a mix of punitive measures, tackling macro-scale problems that have contributed to the rise — such as economic desperation and substance addiction — and putting people’s responsibility for their own rehabilitation into their own hands by making a tradeoff between progress toward rehabilitation and punishment.

“You have to put the ownership back on that person to change their life. And everybody wants to change somebody's life without involving them in it,” Greenwell said.

“We have to make them responsible for their actions and allow them the opportunity to make good on wanting to be somebody different.”

A trail of victimization

A stolen car deprives the victim of the nucleus that supports their livelihood, their way of getting to work and taking their kids to school. If they keep paperwork with personal information on it in the car, the thief might now have their address. And if the car is found, it’s not always in useable condition.

It took about a week for Sean Fritter, the owner of the Suburban stolen by Culpepper from the parking lot of his workplace, to get his car back despite police's luck in finding it so quickly. The time without it made it difficult for him to get to work, and it interrupted plans his family had to move some big items.

“It was the car that my family had for moving stuff,” he said. “So it was a decently important car to my life and the life of my immediate family.”

Fritter said when his car was found, it was full of things that appeared to be from other stolen cars, like registrations and other personal items. It also had a container of lighter fluid, making him wonder if the thieves planned to torch the car once they didn’t have a use for it.

“I think at the time, my own information was still in the glove box where I'd left it, but I'm sure if they had gone through with just dumping my car they probably would have taken it with (them). It contained important information like home address and registration numbers and that sort of thing.”

Seemingly one of the only sentiments police and critics of tough-on-crime policies share is a frustration that basing criminal penalties on a stolen car’s value discriminates against low-income people. A late 1990s to early 2000s Honda Civic or Accord, some of Denver’s most frequently stolen types, likely has an outsized impact on the owner’s life because their livelihood depends on it if it’s their only means of transportation.

“That's the only way to get to the grocery store, the only way to get the kids to school, the only way to get to work. And when that car is taken, it devastates our hardworking folks that are just trying to make ends meet,” Pazen said.

Insurance headaches

The burden of a stolen car can also lead to frustrations on the insurance side, as Donna Brosemer went through when she lived in Westminster and had her car stolen while staying at a hotel for a nearby conference. Because her insurance only had to reimburse her for the car’s book value at the time it was stolen — not when she bought it — Brosemer ended up taking on debt to buy a replacement. The theft ended up costing her $20,000.

“There's a difference between cost and value, and the book value of the car is not necessarily a representation of its value to us. And when it's stolen, we are not made whole by getting the few dollars that the insurance company has decided its cost is,” Brosemer said.

Her car was found a few months later, but she said it was “trashed” and littered with items from other cars, and Brosemer wouldn’t have been able to get it back anyway because she had already signed the car over to her insurance company.

Carole Walker, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said it’s difficult to tell precisely how rising car thefts have impacted insurance costs. Theft falls under comprehensive coverage, which covers a range of things that aren’t the fault of the car owner. Walker said hail damage make up a significant share of comprehensive coverage claims in Colorado, and it’s difficult to separate out the impact of theft on insurance costs.

She doesn’t doubt car thefts reflect in insurance costs, though.

“We ultimately all foot that bill for the rise in auto theft,” she said.

Note: Statistics cited in this story come from the FBI's uniform crime reporting program unless otherwise indicated.