Whidbey car thefts pick up speed

More than the usual number of people are driving off in stolen vehicles.

Whidbey Island hasn’t seen the tremendous spike in car thefts that has been reported statewide, but more than the usual number of people on the island are driving off in vehicles that don’t belong to them, especially in the last month.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs reported that the number of vehicle thefts in the state increased by 99% in March as compared to the same month in 2021. The association estimates that more than 50,000 cars may be stolen this year.

By comparison, the numbers in Island County are minuscule, but still more than what’s typical. So far this year, there have been 29 cars stolen in Island County. This time last year, there were 20, according to the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

A total of 14 car thefts have been reported in Oak Harbor so far this year; eight of them happened in the last month or so alone. All but two of the vehicles have been recovered, according to Capt. Mile Bailey with the Oak Harbor Police Department. He said many of the car thefts, though not all, were crimes of opportunity.

“It’s important for citizens to remember to never leave their vehicles running unattended and to lock their vehicles and do not leave their keys in them,” he said.

So far this year, prosecutors have charged 11 people in Island County Superior Court with felony crimes related to stolen vehicles, which is more than usual. The cases offer some insight into the reasons behind car theft, with some apparently a pointless impulse and others a means to an end. There doesn’t appear to be any organization to the crimes. Possession of a stolen vehicle is a much more common crime than vehicle theft since it’s easier to prove.

Here’s a look at the felony cases this year:

Jerhed Putman, 30, of Oak Harbor was charged Jan. 31 with possession of a stolen vehicle and DUI after he was stopped on Camano Island in a 2000 Toyota Corolla that had been stolen from Arlington, according to court documents.

Zachary K. Hertz, 33, of Bellingham was accused of stealing a pickup truck from a North Whidbey home in January, leading a deputy on a high-speed chase through Oak Harbor before crashing into a tree, fleeing on foot and hiding inside a dumpster, according to court documents. Prosecutors charged him with possession of a stolen vehicle, attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle and criminal impersonation.

Justin Keen, 27, of Langley was accused of breaking into A1 Towing in Oak Harbor, stealing a damaged 1990 Acura Integra and crashing through the gate Feb. 6. Prosecutors charged him with theft of a motor vehicle, malicious mischief in the first degree, criminal impersonation in the first degree, identity theft in the second degree and vehicle prowl in the second degree.

Dalton Dunn, 28, of Oak Harbor was allegedly involved with Keen in the car theft. A deputy located both Keen and Dunn the day after the car theft. Dunn was charged with theft of a motor vehicle, malicious mischief, possession of stolen mail and possession of stolen property.

Taylor Norton, 38, of Arlington was accused of briefly possessing a 2001 Acura stolen from a Freeland home on Feb. 26 and using stolen credits cards at businesses across Whidbey, according to court documents. Prosecutors charged him with possession of a stolen vehicle, six counts of identity theft and possessing stolen property.

Justin D. Brown, 30, stole a running 1990 Mazda from an Oak Harbor 7-Eleven as the owner was returning to the car on Feb 27. He had also forcefully kissed a woman and entered a car without permission. Brown led police on a short chase and the car was later recovered. He apparently didn’t really want the car but just took it “in a daze,” according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to theft of a motor vehicle, assault in the fourth degree and vehicle prowl in the second degree.

Nathan Christy, 39, was accused of stowing a stolen scooter and camping trailer on property on North Whidbey where he had been staying on May 1, according to court documents. He’s facing charges of possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of stolen property.

Samantha Hawkins, 26, of Freeland was accused of driving around in a stolen 2004 gray GMC Yukon, according to court documents. A deputy with the Island County Sheriff’s Office happened to recognize the stolen vehicle in Oak Harbor May 4 and pulled her over. She claimed she had purchased the vehicle from a woman for $500, but she didn’t know the woman’s last name, the deputy’s report states. Prosecutors charged her May 9 with possession of a stolen vehicle.

Melissa Malles, 53, of Langley was accused of stealing a green Chevrolet Malibu from the AM/PM gas station in Oak Harbor May 7. An Oak Harbor police officer responding to the car theft noticed the driver of a car acting squirrelly at an intersection and ended up following the car, which was soon identified as the stolen car, the police report states. Prosecutors charged her with theft of a motor vehicle and violation of an ignition interlock requirement.

On May 10, two Oak Harbor residents were arrested at Walmart on suspicion of possession of a stolen vehicle after police responded to a report of possible shoplifting and found the couple sitting inside a black Nissan that had been stolen from Bellingham.