King County Prosecutor Satterberg out to reduce auto theft

Dan Satterberg, King County’s prosecuting attorney, has a transportation policy. “Transportation. First, I’m in favor of it,” he said. “Second, I think you should get to drive your car whenever you want. And third is no one else should get to drive your car.”

By Kris Hill

Reporter Newspapers

Dan Satterberg, King County’s prosecuting attorney, has a transportation policy.

“Transportation. First, I’m in favor of it,” he said. “Second, I think you should get to drive your car whenever you want. And third is no one else should get to drive your car.”

It was Satterberg’s segue into giving good news at a meeting last Wednesday of the Greater Maple Valley-Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce about the county’s efforts to keep other people out of your car – in other words, its work to reduce car thefts.

Satterberg explained that in the 1990s, King County was routinely in the top 10 of favorite places for car thieves in the United States. The problem, he said, was that it took seven convictions to get a car thief behind bars, and even then they’d only serve six months in jail.

“Car theft is one of those things that affects all of us. Whether or not your car is stolen, you’re paying for it,” Satterberg said. “The people that we’re seeing in stolen cars are responsible for lots of crimes in neighborhoods. When you stop one of these guys, you stop a one-man crime wave.”

Car thieves often are also wanted for involvement in meth labs, identity and mail theft, and robberies, among other crimes.

“The message was that the likelihood of getting caught was low and there wasn’t much of a chance a car thief would go to jail, so that message was received loud and clear by the criminals as well as the criminal justice system,” Satterberg said.

As a result, cops didn’t spend time gathering evidence about car thieves because there wasn’t much reward for the effort, and deputy prosecutors didn’t spent much time on the cases for the same reason.

So, the first thing officials in the prosecutor’s office did was to make sure the thieves got held long enough for the cops to gather evidence, then they let law enforcement agencies know that and asked them to go out and get what prosecutors would need to make charges stick.

“Then we made a list of the top 20 car thieves and we started following them around,” Satterberg said. “Within about a year, 15 of our top 20 were in prison for a very long time.”

Following the thieves around would lead to arrests. The prosecutor’s office would advise police that a thief was due in court or had a meeting with their probation officer. After those appointments, officers would tail the criminal, often to the latest stolen vehicle. Satterberg said one thief even rolled up to a meeting with his probation officer in a brand new Lexus convertible.

Then authorities decided to have a little fun with criminals.

“We have a series of cars we call bait cars,” Satterberg said. “We leave the keys in the glove box. What the cops do is you have to get enough officers and do it in a spot where you can stop him safely. When you get enough officers to stop (a thief) safely, we can turn the car off remotely.”

During the Chamber of Commerce luncheon meeting at Lake Wilderness Lodge, Satterberg showed a video of a man in a bait car. He’s seen getting in looking to steal the stereo, but when he opens the glove box and finds the keys, he takes the bait and drives off.

A camera mounted in the dashboard recorded the man, apparently thinking he was having a good day, grinning and pumping his fist and saying “Yeah!” It wasn’t long before he was being chased, and then he drove at a patrol car. Within seconds, the thief was shot at and a bullet grazed the back of his shaved head.

“Pretty soon, his very good day turned into a very bad day,” Satterberg said. “But it was a very good day for us.”

One member of the top-20 car thieves list had stolen 138 cars. Officers found this out by plying him with hamburgers and milkshakes, which he consumed while they drove him around, pointing out where he had stolen cars, what he had taken and then where he left them when they ran out of gas.

Authorities went to the Legislature and asked for some changes to the laws, like the one that didn’t send criminals to jail until they’d been convicted of car theft seven times.

“On your third conviction, you get 17 to 22 months in prison, and on your fourth car theft you get 43 to 57 months for every theft after,” Satterberg said. “In April, 2005 we had 1,383 cars stolen. In April of this year, we’ had 582. And that’s the way it’s been going every month. In 2005, when the King County area was ranked sixth in the nation for stolen cars, we had 17,694 car thefts.”

Satterberg said the new efforts are working.

“Apparently if (thieves are) in prison, they can’t steal your car,” he said. “With a 25 percent drop in car theft, crime went down overall by 13 percent. We’re buoyed by that success. It’s probably had an impact in your community. The chance of your car being there after lunch today is twice as good as it was a couple years ago.”

Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and