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Car thefts rising in Billings; police struggle to keep up

Car tail lights
Posted at 11:41 AM, Mar 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-14 13:41:03-04

BILLINGS — April Todd's world was turned upside down in an instant.

"I walked out, looked out the window and my car was gone," she said. "I felt like I wanted to throw up."

Todd never thought something like this would happen to her, especially not at 2:30 p.m. on a Monday.

"I went to the gym, in the middle of the day," Todd said. "Then after I was done, I went to get my keys and they were gone."

Someone walked into the gym locker room, took the keys from Todd’s bag, and by the time Todd finished her workout her gold Subaru Forrester was gone.

"It stops everything you have planned and everything you have going on," she said.

Auto theft numbers
Billings had the 8th highest auto theft rate of metropolitan areas in the country in 2020.

On average, three people have their vehicles stolen every day in Billings.

The issue isn’t new — Billings ranked 15th in the nation for auto theft rate in 2017, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and rose to 8th in 2020.

The difference now is because of the rise in more high-profile crimes in the city, prosecuting those criminals, let alone recovering your car, is getting harder and harder.

"We'd key up all the vehicles, and they'd come right on and drive it off the front of the lot in the middle of the day," said Josh Gardipee.

Car dealerships aren’t even immune. Gardipee is a sales associate with Auto Magic on a busy intersection near MetraPark.

"We’re not allowed to put gas in the tanks for the customers," Gardipess said. "That’s a car sale thing - you fill the tank up for your customer. We just can't do it. We can't keep gas on the lot because it gets stolen."

Auto Magic Billings
Auto Magic car dealership near MetraPark in Billings has had multiple vehicles stolen off their lot.

The new policy came in handy last month when thieves came at night and stole a Jeep SRT 8. It was found a couple of miles down the road in Lockwood but in rough shape — the front bumper needs to be completely replaced and the back windows don't roll down. The costs come out of the dealership - or individual’s - pocket, when there’s no one else to charge.

"It was dark. (They were wearing a) hood, masks, gloves. We can’t really tell who it is," Gardipee said, "so unless they catch them in the cars, they can’t really do anything."

"That’s the real tragedy," Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley added. "It’s hard to hold people accountable for every single one of those."

In reality, five out of every six go unpunished, according to BPD statistics that show an arrest is made in just 17% of motor vehicle theft cases. It’s why the department started the Street Crimes Division.

"Street Crimes was designed to fill a gap," Wooley said. "We needed a proactive enforcement portion for areas that involved property crimes, theft, burglary. Motor vehicle theft numbers were a major driving force in that."

Billings car arrest rates

It worked for a while - numbers went down in 2018 and ’19 - but now, the five-officer street crimes division isn’t enough. The latest public safety mill levy will eventually add more patrol officers, but there are other challenges, including BPD’s compelling-need pursuit policy.

"Pursuits are very dangerous, and at the end of the day, when you look at motor vehicle theft, it’s property," Wooley said. "Granted it is somebody else's property, but it's not worth risking innocent members in the community and their lives with chasing reckless drivers at high speeds through the city.

"What we often time see, a majority of the stolen vehicles that we do stop, a majority of them flee on us, so it's very hard for us to find stolen vehicles with people inside them," said Wooley.

Bottom line - getting your car back is usually the best you can hope for. It was enough for Todd, who got the good news five days later.

"I was ecstatic," she said. "Getting the car back is way more important than her being prosecuted, for me personally."

Car fingerprints
Residue remains where police took fingerprint samples from Billings resident April Todd's stolen Subaru.

Though even this case doesn’t have a truly happy ending.

"She took my wallet, has my social security card and driver’s license," Todd said. "It's just another thing I need to do to figure it out - it’s been a mess. I thought going to the gym at 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon was a pretty safe activity."

Those are becoming harder and harder to find.