Rash of Wheel Thefts on the Hill

Resident Targeted Twice in One Month

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The wheels were stolen from Kjersten Drager's vehicle twice in one month. The second time, they also broke a window. Image: K. Drager

It was 12:45 in the morning of Saturday, Feb. 9. David Strich was at home asleep on his sofa when there was a knock on the door. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer he found waiting there said that neighbors across the street had called to report a theft from Strich’s vehicle.

His Chevrolet Suburban was still parked where he’d left it, in front of his house on the 300 block of South Carolina Avenue SE. But all four wheels were gone.

“My car was just sitting on the ground on the rotors,” Strich said.

He said it was both unnerving and maddening to have such a brazen theft happen right in front of his home. “Especially seeing it on video —it just makes your blood boil.”

‘It’s Not Normal’
While fancy rims can range into the thousands of dollars, even rims for vehicles like Strich’s purchased through Walmart can run from $500 to $1200 apiece, making them valuable resale items. And cars can be stripped surprisingly quickly –video from similar thefts shows about 15 minutes elapse from the time thieves first identify a target vehicle to the moment they flee, leaving vehicles balanced on cinder blocks or crates or lying flat on the ground.

The theft of Strich’s tires is part of what seems to be a rash of similar crimes throughout the Hill and the District since about November of 2018. Strich said that the same night, thieves had attempted to take the wheels from his neighbor’s Toyota Camry, bending the frame in the process. Tires were also taken from a Cadillac Escalade in Southeast and a Chevy Tahoe near Garfield Park in the early hours of Thursday, Feb. 7.

MPD First District Commander Morgan Kane said that she was aware of three such crimes in the last week. At a recent Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meeting, Sector 3 Captain Aubrey Mongal said that he was aware of five or six such crimes in the last two weeks. “And it’s not normal,” he added. “It’s something that just popped up.”

Kane said that police were trying to identify the vehicles used by suspects. “We’re still investigating if there is one group or more than one group.”

Sector 1 Captain Jonathon Dorrough told ANC 6D that he understood that wheel theft was a regional problem. “I think it’s a group of guys that are very sophisticated,” he said, “probably hit a neighborhood for a little while, then move on to somewhere else, whether here or in Maryland or Virginia.”

The Second Time Was Horrible
Kjersten Drager evidently lives in a targeted neighborhood. On Jan. 13, all the wheels were taken off her 2015 Chevrolet Suburban, parked near her home on the 100 block of Kentucky Avenue SE. After ten days and $6,200 they were replaced by her insurer.

Drager drove her vehicle for two weeks before waking the morning of February 10th to find it propped up by plastic soda crates, one window broken and all four tires missing. Again.

“The first time it happened was one thing,” she said. “It cost money and time and it was alarming. The second time was horrible. We just felt so targeted.”

Surveillance video obtained by MPD from a neighbor shows a silver four-door pick-up pull up on the 100 block of Kentucky Street SE in front of Drager’s vehicle at 2:40 a.m. Feb 10. Four people exit. By 2:56, the truck speeds down Kentucky back to Independence Avenue SE, all four wheels loaded in the back.

Drager said she had never considered her vehicle, used for transporting groceries and children to school and practice, particularly desirable. “Who would have ever thought that people would want pieces of my mom-mobile?” she asked.

Wheel Locks
One method developed for prevention of wheel theft is wheel locks, essentially lug nuts that can only be removed with a particular key. But they have their critics.

“Wheel locks don’t work,” Drager said.

She ought to know. When her insurance company replaced the tires and rims, they installed a set. Worried she might need to change a flat tire, Drager elaborately hid the key inside a child’s pencil case and under books in the pocket behind the passenger seat.

So instead of merely stealing the wheels on Feb. 10, the thieves smashed the window to find the key.

“So now we’re just sort of at a loss,” she said. “What do we do if they come back? Do we just keep putting the wheels back on?”

While it is generally recommended that keys to wheel locks be stored outside of the vehicle, most people don’t, worried they’ll find themselves on the side of the road with a flat tire and no way to put on the spare. Experts say that wheel locks are often just that: a minor inconvenience. Thieves will smash windows to look for the key, and they can remove wheel locks with a socket and lug wrench, or even faster using a hammer.

‘You Should Be Able to Park’
Commander Kane said there is little vehicle owners can do to prevent these types of crimes. “First and foremost, you should be able to park your car on the street and not walk out and find all your tires are missing –that’s the first thing,” she said. Kane said MPD would increase officer presence in the affected areas in an effort to deter wheel thieves.

She asks that those in affected neighborhoods share video, adding that MPD has been knocking on doors in those neighborhoods to get video that might help identify the suspects in these cases.

Finally, Kane encourages residents to report anything they think is amiss. Call 911 in an emergency, 311 in a non-emergency or text information, photos and video to the anonymous Text Tip Line at 50411.

Both Strich and Drager say that the thefts shook them up. “I’ve lived on the Hill for 11 years now,” Strich said. “It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s just unnerving to have this happen on what I think of as a quiet street.”

Drager agrees. “I gotta say that yesterday morning, I was ready to leave for the suburbs,” she said. “But we had so many members of the community call us, email, text, or stop by –and it reminded me why I live here.”