New or used vehicles and thousands of dollars in merchandise. No, this isn’t a grand prize. It’s what’s been stolen from Henderson County residents in the last few months.
Recently, local authorities started turning the tables on the groups of juveniles they believe are responsible.
But let’s back up.
According to officials with the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office and the Henderson Police Department, the issue centers around teenagers searching for unlocked vehicles – and finding them.
“Primarily juveniles are going through neighborhoods in random areas, and all they are doing is checking vehicle door handles,” said Henderson County Sheriff Chip Stauffer. “If they are locked, they move on. They don’t break into vehicles. These are crimes of opportunity.”
Guns, credit cards, identification cards, cash and purses are among the items pilfered from unlocked vehicles, he said.
“Sometimes they take a car so they can go find another car,” Stauffer said.
HPD Investigations Commander John Nevels said if the vehicles are unlocked, the juveniles will take what they can find. If the keys are in the unlocked vehicles, they take the cars.
“On Dec. 13, (juveniles) stole a truck from North Elm Street and used it to go up to the North End of the city to conduct car prowls,” Nevels said. “There, they found a nicer vehicle – a 2020 Suburban on Redbird Lane. They used it to drive back to the East End where they started (car) prowling in those areas. Officers spotted the vehicle they were in, and the juveniles bailed out.”
Officers caught two of the juveniles, ages 14 and 17, both of Henderson County, and charged them with theft of an auto, receiving stolen property (firearm) and theft from an auto. Police are searching for a third juvenile.
“Inside the stolen vehicle, we found a woman’s purse which contained her address,” Nevels said. “We went to speak to her, and that’s when she was notified that her purse and cell phone had been stolen from her car on Poplar Avenue.”
He added that a gun reported stolen from yet another vehicle was also located in the car allegedly purloined by the juveniles.
While area law enforcement agrees this crime has plagued both jurisdictions – at least $10,000 in items taken in the county – it seems the lion’s share of crimes have occurred within the city.
HPD said during the last two months, approximately 31 vehicles have been stolen. That’s three times the number of vehicles stolen during the same period in 2022, officials said.
The value of the stolen vehicles, as well as the items taken, is estimated at well over $100,000, Nevels said.
Of the wrecks that have occurred after the vehicles were stolen, he said, “I couldn’t begin to say the dollar amount in damages.”
To stymie the crime wave, HPD command staff developed a strategy to use the juveniles’ somewhat predictable behaviors against them.
It’s not as cryptic as it sounds. HPD simply equipped a vehicle with interior cameras, GPS tracking, and equipment which would shut the car down remotely. The bait car is then left unlocked with the keys inside.
The plan worked, and on Dec. 1, a juvenile stole the bait car. Police said the vehicle was located, and the juvenile was taken into custody on charges that included theft of an auto, possession of marijuana, fleeing/evading police, driving under the influence and no operator’s license.
All four teens charged in these two separate incidents are believed to be connected to other vehicle thefts and car prowls in Henderson County, authorities said.
HPD officials said the department will continue to use the bait car program, switching out the types of vehicles and their respective locations.
Stauffer and Nevels said vehicle thefts/prowls come in waves, and hopefully, with the recent arrests Henderson County will get a reprieve.
However, since there are approximately four groups of juveniles believed to be participating in the crimes, the bait car will stay in play, HPD said.
So what can Henderson County residents do to protect themselves?
Stauffer said the best line of defense is simple: “Make sure you lock your doors.”