Terry Finney returned to Denver International Airport at the end of the weekend trip to find his car left from the East Garage, where he had parked it two days earlier. By the end of the week, Denver police had arrested the suspected thieves and recovered his Audi A4 sedan.
But what seemed like a happy ending turned sour when he saw the condition of the seven-year-old’s car.
It sustained minor physical damage that “could have been repaired,” Finn recalled, “but he had smoked so much meth in it that it was total.”
He is among dozens of DIA travelers affected by the rise in auto thefts from its garages and the frequency of thefts at the airport more than doubling this year. Increasingly, law enforcement officials say, theft rings and personal thieves see airport parking and rental car lots as easy targets during the pandemic, with an average of 16 cars a month swiped this year. .
Auto theft is a recurring problem in hotels and lots even outside the boundaries of the DIA. It has increased in the last two years along with some other types of crimes across the country. But police figures show that the DIA’s growth in auto theft cases has far exceeded that of Metro Denver.
Car theft can be a costly surprise to passengers upon returning to the airport, even though police are often able to find stolen vehicles.
After Finney’s experience in late February, a check cut by his insurance company for the value of his total car left him on the hook for a large portion of the price for a replacement. She also lost the external gear and other items she had left inside her old car, which were all gone by the time she was found.
Denver psychologist Finney reported that the burglary cost him more than $11,000.
Auto theft has already eclipsed last year
Data provided to the Denver Police Department’s Denver Post shows that last year, thieves swiped 97 vehicles from airport property locations, including garages and lots at DIA’s as well as lots of rental car companies . Even though passenger traffic declined significantly during the pandemic last year, the total number of auto-thefts in 2020 was 24% higher than in 2019.
The problem has only intensified, with 115 vehicle thefts reported in the DIA in the first seven months of this year – 125% more than the same period in 2020, when 51 vehicle thefts were reported.
A similar partial-year comparison produced in a recent report by the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force shows that there were 73% more vehicle thefts in metros in the first half of 2021 versus 2020. Thieves blew up an average of 519 vehicles each week between January. June 1 and 30, the report says.
According to a report released last month by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, even lower figures from last year put Metro Denver in third place among US metropolitan areas when vehicle thefts are compared by population.
DPD’s airport statistics do not include locations outside DIA boundaries, including adjacent hotels, private long-term lots, and an off-site lot managed by the DIA adjacent to the A-Line station at 61st and Peña Boulevard. Police records show that they are frequently targets of auto-theft.
DPD and airport officials say they have increased patrolling by police and security officials in DIA lots, including overnight. They have a lot of ground to cover, although license plate scanners and cameras at entry and exit points often assist theft investigators.
“I know they’re on it,” said Lakewood Police Commander Mike Greenwell, who heads the task force. “I know they see the problem. The point is, they have so much land and they have so many vehicles, there’s really no way anyone can patrol enough. I think they helped put in additional security measures.” Really good job.”
Still, he said, “a lot of it either comes down to the error of the owner,” with cars left uncovered or valuables left unattended. “Or, if a thief wants the car, they’ll find a way to get it.”
Thieves are often criminals
Greenwell said auto thieves are often prolific, usually stealing a car for personal use or to commit other crimes — and then giving up or selling it cheaply within a few days. Pickup trucks and mid-range sedans were most targeted in Metro Denver in the spring, not expensive cars.
The task force says that metro police departments recover about 88 percent of stolen vehicles.
He suspects that a major factor behind the increase in theft during the pandemic is that measures to reduce prison overcrowding have led to more people being arrested for nonviolent crimes on the street.
In Finney’s case, the Denver police officer who took her report drove her license plate and told her that a witness to the attempted car theft had already seen her vehicle. Three days later, after DIA parking managers reported suspicious activity in the East garage, police arrested one of the Saab occupants who had a stolen license plate, according to a statement of probable cause.
Police arrested a 23-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman on suspicion of stealing Finney’s car and another vehicle. One got probation and the other’s case is pending. The two were re-arrested last week in a new auto theft case in Broomfield, according to court records.
The officials urged the passengers who parked at the DIA to ensure that they lock their vehicles and do not leave any valuables inside the trunk as well. And DIA encourages its employees and the public to report any suspicious activity using the See Say Airport smart-phone app or by calling 303-342-4211.
Phinney praised the police officers who solved his case. But the overall experience disappointed him.
“It’s extremely time consuming,” she said. “I’ve lost a bunch of stuff for which I’ll never be compensated. I worked hours with the police, with idiots… (and) with my insurance company. Then buying a car, buying a car, renting a car for months But it also cost me in terms of the hours I couldn’t work – tons of hours.”