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The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigated a record number of vehicle thefts in 2019, public information coordinator Grant Bissell said.

There were 360 stolen vehicles, which includes cars, motorcycles, trucks and ATVs, in the 660 square miles the Sheriff’s Office patrols in the county. That number is up about 6 percent from 2018, according to Sheriff’s Office records.

“I don’t think that 360 number is complete for the year (2019), but it’s pretty close,” Bissell said of the number that was first reported on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page on Jan. 1. “We have been on a steady increase. The quarterly crime numbers have been climbing over at least the last three years.”

The Sheriff’s Office reported that of the 360 stolen vehicles, at least 305 were reportedly left unlocked, and 252 of those unlocked vehicles also had the keys inside at the time of the theft.

Bissell said the Sheriff’s Office strongly urges Jefferson County residents to remove keys from vehicles and lock their doors at all times.

“So many of them (thefts) are due to people leaving vehicles unlocked with the keys inside, which is a preventable crime,” he said.

According to the report, 291 of the stolen vehicles were recovered, and a majority of those recovered vehicles did not have ignition damage, suggesting the keys were in some of the vehicles that were reported stolen without keys inside of them.

Bissell said there are a number of reasons victims do not tell deputies that doors were left unlocked and keys were left inside stolen vehicles, but often, victims simply do not remember if a door was unlocked.

He also said people sometimes store keys for numerous vehicles in the primary vehicle they drive. Then when the victim’s primary vehicle is left unlocked, the keys to other ones may be stolen. He said garage door openers also should be removed from vehicles so they’re not stolen.

“If they (thieves) find a key fob for one vehicle, they will go into that vehicle and may steal that. They can get your garage door opener, and now they can get into your garage and possibly your house,” Bissell said. “There can be a domino effect that stems from one thing you do that can put you at risk.”

The Sheriff’s Office has increased patrols in areas throughout Jefferson County it has identified as likely targets for car thieves. Many of these neighborhoods are located near major highways or interstates.

The patrols were stepped up in an attempt to prevent vehicle thefts, as well as thefts from vehicles. On Oct. 21, 2019, Sheriff Dave Marshak held a press conference to discuss a spike in thefts from unlocked vehicles parked in subdivisions that are being targeted by groups from outside the county.

At the time, Marshak said many of the vehicles that had been broken into had been left unlocked.

“The areas (where thefts have occurred) have expanded because of proactive measures and responding to what has happened over previous months,” Bissell said. “Patrols are all over the place, especially during the night shift. They (deputies) talk about it frequently and it is on the front of their minds to cruise through neighborhoods and likely spots where car thieves are going. They are not limited to these neighborhoods, but the probability is higher if you go into a neighborhood where there are hundreds of cars, that you are going to find one unlocked with the keys in it.”

Bissell said the Sheriff’s Office shares and receives information about vehicle thefts with municipalities in Jefferson County, St. Louis County and the metro area.

This shared information has led to arrests by the Sheriff’s Office and other area agencies, Bissell said.

“It is working,” Bissell said of measures law enforcement agencies have taken to curb vehicle thefts. “We need more help from folks who own vehicles to take that extra level of preparedness and security to not leave keys in the vehicle.”

Bissell said the best protection is for people to secure their vehicles and remove keys, even if they feel they live in a safe neighborhood.

“We know Jefferson County is safe,” Bissell said. “You don’t see the same type of crimes and frequency of crimes as other areas nearby here. That can lead to a false sense of security of, ‘I live in a safe area, so I don’t need to worry about locking my doors and taking my keys inside.’ That is not the case.

“There is no fence that is going to keep the bad guys out. The best thing you can do is lock those doors, and if people start doing that, I think the numbers will go down.”

Bissell said all law enforcement agencies are dealing with the new bond rules that went into effect July 1, 2019, that say courts must find the least restrictive way to release a defendant from jail while awaiting trial, which typically means a person who is arrested is released without having to pay a bond.

“Judges are having a very hard time under the new bond reform ruling keeping these folks behind bars, even if they are repeat offenders,” Bissell said. “It is frustrating for us and the citizens who have to deal with this stuff. You can take steps to make it much more difficult and almost impossible for someone to take your vehicle. These are not rocket scientists reprogramming computers. They are going into vehicles, finding keys and taking vehicles.”