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If you don't know anyone who's had a car or truck stolen in the Quad-Cities, be patient.

It's a bizarre epidemic — thieves, many of them juveniles — are stealing our vehicles right off our driveways. In many cases, they're helping themselves to our garages.

We now are up to a record of about 600 stolen vehicles this year. And not one of the victims is going to like what police have to say about it: "Ninety-nine percent of the thefts were preventable."

It may sound like victim blaming, but it's not -- not entirely.

Two recent victims told me how it happened to them.

The expensive truck

Kent and Jeri Knickelbein live in a new, upscale subdivision in east Bettendorf. During a recent garage project, Kent parked his $50,000 2015 Ford F-150 on the driveway. He doesn't like to carry his clunky key fob (remote-entry key) around, so he locks it in his truck, using the digital keypad in the door to get in.

On the morning of Oct. 10, Jeri Knickelbein pulled out of the garage and realized her husband's truck was gone.

"We called the police, of course, and it turned out the police knew about it before we did," Kent said.

As the stolen truck headed out of his subdivision and onto Middle Road very late at night — with no headlights — a Bettendorf officer attempted a traffic stop. But the thieves took off. Davenport police also gave chase when the truck reached their city but backed of, Kent was told, when speeds reached 80 mph. Absent evidence of a forcible felony (using a gun in the theft, for instance), chases are simply too risky, and police frequently call them off.

When Kent's truck didn't turn up after 20 days, the couple's insurance company wrote them a check for $39,000. Four days later, the truck was recovered.

"It was in pretty good shape," Kent said. "They partied in it, but it wasn't anything a good detailing wouldn't fix."

But the truck belonged to the insurance company by then, and they did not wish to prosecute. So, the truck was not processed for fingerprints.

The Knickelbeins say that locking the truck was a routine, and, if it was unlocked that night, it was a rare mistake. Kent wonders if the thieves are using a device that overrides the touch-pad locks, but Bettendorf Police Capt. Keith Kimball said he doubts it. He doesn't think the thieves are that sophisticated, and police would be seeing more of it if such devices were being used.

Kimball said Bettendorf typically processes every stolen vehicle, but the insurance company in this case specifically instructed them to skip it.

Kent's truck was not the first theft in their neighborhood this year. A car was stolen from a house five doors away, and the neighbor across the street had her vehicle snatched from a repair shop while she was out of town.

The way Kent sees it, two things are making matters worse: "First of all, the insurance companies are exacerbating the problem by not cooperating with police and prosecutors. Secondly, prosecutors here have no appetite for sending these kids to jail. The kids just keep getting away with it. Why stop?"

Maggie's Kia

One week after Maggie Gant-Schneekloth move into a house in Silvis with friends, she became a target.

The 18-year-old's 2006 Kia Optima was stolen off the street in front of the house. A family member left Maggie's spare key under the driver's mat when it was at the repair shop recently, and she forgot to put it in the house.

The car thieves found it.

Taken on Nov. 11, the Kia was recovered two days later — thanks to widespread Facebook shares. A family member posted a picture of the car, along with details of where it was stolen. The post was shared and, eventually, a Facebook user spotted the car about five minutes away from Maggie's house.

"It was, literally, down the street," she said. "They didn't steal anything else. They just took it for a joy ride. But now the alignment is messed up, and my transmission is blown. My insurance company gave me a loaner until they figure out whether it's worth fixing."

Like most of us, Maggie needs her car. She's a college student, working two jobs and trying to pay her parents back for the Kia they bought when her first car broke down.

"I was, like, really mad, because I don't see how people can be so low as to steal someone's car," she said. "Then they ruined it."

Asked whether Silvis police processed her car for prints, Maggie said, "No, they didn't, which kind of surprised me. They (thieves) literally left my key in the ignition. Couldn't they get prints off that?"

When asked why the car wasn't processed, Silvis Police Chief Mark VanKlaveren said the owner declined, contrary to Maggie's accounting.

"We give the option of holding the car, calling crime scene, and processing it," he wrote in an email. "A lot of times, people just want their cars back."

What the police say

Bettendorf's Capt. Kimball has some surprising stories to tell.

For instance, police have seen home-security surveillance videos of the thieves at work.

"A car pulls up, and they jump out like a little army," he said. "They go up and down the street, pulling on door handles. It's like a slot machine: You pull enough door handles, you're going to hit the jackpot.

"They're looking for valuables and keys."

And this information: "With a lot of today's cars, the kids know to just put their foot on the brake and push the (start) button," Kimball said. "People hide their Fobs in their cars, and having it nearby is enough to take off with the car.

"We have another problem in that people leave their car running outside a convenience store or gas station or wherever, and they think they're OK, because they take their Fob with them. Not so. Once the car is running, with most cars, you don't need the Fob."

Garage-door openers are another opportunity for thieves. Kimball recalled one case in which a family car was left on the driveway, and the thieves pulled the handle. The door was open, and a garage-door opener was discovered inside. The thieves opened the garage door, and stole two vehicles, which each had keys inside. The owners evidently thought they were safe in the garage.

Thievery is different in some ways now than it used to be: "There's no such thing as hot wiring a car," Kimball said. "And the old days of the chop shop (a place to disassemble stolen cars) are gone. I can tell you that's not occurring in the Quad-Cities."

Our vehicles are not being driven away and sold in big cities, either.

"Ninety-nine percent are recovered here in the Quad-Cities," Kimball said. "They're not being found in Chicago. We usually have a pretty good idea of where to go looking. We know some of the dumping grounds."

All evidence points to one motive, and that's joy-riding. On occasion, stolen cars are used in robberies and/or burglaries, and a couple even have been involved in shootings. But mostly, our cars and trucks are being used, abused, then dumped.

So, what about using bait cars to catch the crooks?

"I'm not saying that hasn't been happening," the captain (slyly) replied.

He said a couple of juveniles were chased near the Rock Island Arsenal, and they rolled the stolen vehicle. In a videotaped interview with police, the boys said, "It's a thrill. It was fun," according to Kimball.

"But their attitudes changed with the reality of their heads hitting the windshield when they rolled," he said.

Let's face it: We've had car thieves since the invention of the automobile. Horse thieves had to have something to do. But why so many now? Why would our little Quad-Cities have 600 stolen vehicles before the year is even over?

"It seems like everything is heightened — kind of elevated now," Kimball said. "I think there are societal reasons. There are drugs and social media ('I've seen kids bragging about stealing cars on Facebook'), parenting, video games and immaturity.

"I don't know why we haven't had a tragedy — police, innocent members of the public or one of these juveniles. I think it speaks to officers' restraint."

And sleeping victims.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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