Below is a series of articles about crime in Merced and Stanislaus counties in recent months. It is not an exhaustive list, not a police log, nor is it long enough to represent the variety of crime reported daily in this region. However, we do learn from the articles that Merced, Modesto, and two other Valley county seats rank among the top 10 cities in the nation for car theft. We learn that the recent "Operation Scrapbook," a multi-agency task force using advanced communications surveillance nabbed some top gang members accused of heavy charges including murder, meth dealing, and gun dealing.
But there is something sporadic, almost random about these reports and the other crime reports. Admittedly, there is a formula for writing up police stories, largely dependent on the information the police give reporters. That varies, depending on political considerations of both law enforcement leaders and editors as well as on personal relations between reporters and police. But there is the sense, at least in Merced, that there is no longer a police reporter, that no one is checking the police log daily, that no one in the press (or the political leadership for that matter), has a critical perspective on local crime. They seem to regard it like they do the perennial problems with the sewer system -- if not taboo, at least a stinky topic.
The old saw, "If it bleeds, it leads," may not be a favorite of realtor advertisers when they smell the possibility of another real estate boom. In that situation, the media and political leaders are encouraged to downplay the crime reports or else scatter them so that they are never allowed to reach such a mass in the public's mind that they might lead to alarm and critical thought.
But the information is staring us in the face: Stockton, Modesto and Merced rank second, third and fourth in the list of most dangerous cities in Northern California, according to the latest FBI statistics (2015).
Do the statistics account for the sense of menace growing in these cities? The FBI has found new offices in Ripon:
At one point, maybe a decade ago, when the FBI couldn’t find a suitable space elsewhere in Modesto, it operated out of the DoubleTree Hotel, Osborne said. In more recent years, it had another home in Modesto. But neither the Modesto nor Stockton resident agencies has space to grow at their sites, and an advantage of the Ripon location is room for expansion, he said.
Well, it's growth, anyway, and we seem willing to take any kind of growth we can get here in the northern San Joaquin Valley. And those additional FBI agents and clerical staff will have middle-class incomes and some of them may want homes. And we have homes galore, particularly pre-foreclosed and foreclosed homes, from which to choose. Be sure your realtor is a qualified foreclosure specialist. From prison guards to FBI agents, law enforcement keeps on growing more homeowners.
Another area showing steady growth in the Valley is poverty. Valley counties from Merced to Kern contain the largest contiguous area of poverty in the state, defined as a region where more than a quarter of the population will spend some time in poverty in a 5-year period (2008-2012) according to the California Budget Policy Center.
Perhaps there is a connection between poverty and crime.
But citizens, as opposed to sworn law enforcement officers and their support staff, need to ask themselves how long they think they can afford poverty-stricken neighborhoods full of gang violence even if our responsible burgers of White Gate and other prosperous settlements north of town have their own Starbucks and supermarkets and don't go downtown unless it is to slip quickly into air-conditioned business offices or government buildings? How long can you afford not to look at the streets of your city or the sidewalks of your downtown?
How long? But "how long?" is the wrong question. "How long?" is an optimistic question behind which lurks an assumption that the the right something will be done and it will get better rather than worse. But the FBI knows: it's planning for growth in the Valley. Things are going to get worse if leadership stays the same or if new leadership follows the pattern.
It took one hundred and fifty years of Valley "leadership" to produce the social nightmare playing itself out under the most polluted skies in the nation. We need to learn how to escape this plantation culture that agribusiness created for us.
We need to start by trying to understand our own resentments, where they came from and their consequences. We need to understand how anger and fear operate in ourselves before we judge. And we need to think about the law before we automatically call for more law enforcement.
Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the first of battle. -- James Baldwin, Many Thousands Gone, 1947.
We are getting law enforcement announcements --press releases, not journalism, news of programs designed to influence teenagers "during gang recruitment season"??? a previous year or two a state funded campaign "for youth" in some amorphous way, now nearly vanished (along with the funding, presumably). But it all has a slightly desperate quality, like the size of our sheriff's Stetson. We don't dispute his ability as a sheriff but wonder a bit about the theatrics. The fight against this disaster, organized criminal gangs that originate in Mexico and reach down into the roots of our society and the drugs, guns and violence they bring is represented by group photos, press conferences and presentations at local government public meetings. We also get photos of tough guys with tattoos, most of whom don't look too worried.
Meanwhile, on the streets and in the rough neighborhoods, things don't improve. A fight in the Merced City Council last year raged for weeks before a little more money was voted for the Boys and Girls Club to open for part of the weekend. The battle for control of the improvements at McNamara Park went on for a year.
But maybe they don't get much worse either. We want to make it very clear how grateful we are to police officers for their various services to our neighborhoods. We realize some of the difficulty of their job, but nowhere near all of it. But there is nothing we've seen that gives us confidence that law enforcement in Merced County will prevail and make the streets and roads as safe as they were before the real estate collapse a decade ago. And that is the problem of political leadership in the county, not the problem of the great majority of police men and women. The problem of leadership in turn lands squarely on the public. Does the public actually want law and order? Or will it continue to allow itself to be divided and conquered, which has always been the pattern, rather than unite to get the law and order it needs?
Do whatever it takes to stop the murders in Merced County
The Editorial Board
How bad is Merced’s murder crisis?
So bad that entire towns are frightened. So bad that Sheriff’s Office administrators must respond to homicide calls. So bad the district attorney is personally trying cases.
So bad that even gangsters are warning their families to stay away from Merced. Too dangerous.
Statistically, Merced County has become the murder capital of California. There were more murders per capita here than in any other jurisdiction in 2014. After 23 in 2012, there were 30 in 2013, then 32 in 2014. Counting this year, Merced County has endured 93 murders in four years. Our murder rate doubles the state average.
Is this really a crisis?
“A severe crisis,” said Sheriff Vern Warnke. “And our elected officials don’t seem to see it.”
This is unacceptable and any elected official not demanding explanations, insisting on solutions and working his or her damnedest to help stop the slaughter is not doing their job.
Tired of working behind the scenes, Warnke and District Attorney Larry Morse II appeared before the Board of Supervisors last week to demand action.
They attributed the spike in murders to greatly increased gang activity tied to narcotics and prostitution. When one gang steps on another’s turf, violence ensues.
“One of the last homicides we dealt with was linked to the Mexican mafia,” said Warnke. “It was a gunfight at 2:30 in the afternoon.”
The county has hired more deputies, but Warnke says he’s having trouble keeping the ones he’s got. In the past 18 months, he’s lost 15 of 80 officers – nearly a 20 percent turnover.
He’s reaching out to city police and the California Highway Patrol for help. A county/CHP sweep the night of April 28 recovered firearms from people who shouldn’t have them.
The problem, says Warnke, is that his department’s pay package has fallen far behind pay schedules offered in nearby counties; it’s roughly half what deputies can earn in coastal communities.
Deputies have been working without a contract for months. But this is no bargaining ploy; the numbers don’t lie. Ninety-three bodies prove it.
That’s why Morse and Warnke went to the board.
“I’ve just run out of patience,” said Morse. “I’ve been saying this for three years, and I’ve never had one member of the Board of Supervisors contact me. You’re the murder capital of California … and there has been no effort from elected officials to address it.”
That’s not exactly true. Morse and Warnke took the problem to Assemblyman Adam Gray, and he is seeking state grants and programs to help the community confront the situation.
What more must be done?
First, this is a crisis – treat it like one. Recognize that being ground zero for gang violence is not just bad for people’s health, it’s bad for business. Who wants to locate in a gang war zone? Who wants to send their child to a campus next to a shooting gallery?
Second, give deputies a contract that will make them want to stay. No Valley county can afford salaries comparable to those in San Jose or Santa Clara. But offering comparable pay to Tracy or Fresno or even UC Merced is necessary. This is more of a long-term solution.
Third, dig into supervisors’ discretionary funds ($40,000 each per year) to provide a stipend – 15 or 20 percent – for being on the gang task force. Such a bonus might entice officers from other jurisdictions to come here. That would pay immediate dividends.
Fourth, convene a summit; invite parents of at-risk youths, clergy, law enforcement and representatives of state government. Perhaps Gray or Sen. Anthony Cannella could lead it, facilitating the search for solutions.
Finally, everyone in Merced County should let their supervisors know this is not acceptable. Those running for office must explain what they will do to stop the violence. Vote according to their answers.
The people of Merced have had enough of living in California’s murder capital.
Merced County suspects make first court appearances since massive gang sweep
Nearly a dozen defendants swept up in “Operation Scrapbook” – a series of dozens of gang raids coordinated by local, state and federal law enforcement that netted more than 50 arrests on Wednesday – made their first appearance Thursday in federal court to answer drug and weapons charges.
The 11 men appeared before Judge Stanley A. Boone to be assigned defense attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s Office requested a detention hearing to determine whether the defendants should remain in custody or be released pending trial, according to Deb Duckett-Morris, secretary to U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert.
Duckett-Morris told the Sun-Star a prosecutor requested the detention hearing be scheduled between Friday and Tuesday.
The criminal complaint unsealed this week in U.S. District Court names 11 men as defendants in the months-long investigation. Two of the defendants, 22-year-old Robert “Bubba” Guthrie and 28-year-old Prado “Termite” Andres Corona, of Hughson, have been charged with gun and drug trafficking, conspiracy, unlawfully possessing guns, and more, according to the complaint.
The complaint details more than a dozen controlled purchases of guns, drugs or both allegedly from Guthrie in Atwater and Winton. Guthrie’s mother, sister and girlfriend also were arrested in Wednesday’s raids, authorities said.
The complaint also describes an instance where Orasio “Acho” Fierro, 24, drove to Turlock and Modesto to meet and purchase drugs from a supplier.
On May 1, federal agents intercepted a package containing a 231 grams of methamphetamine inside of a Teddy bear intended for Francisco “Bouncer” Salgado, who was convicted of a stabbing in 2009, according to the complaint.
Prior to intercepting the package, agents listened to Salgado’s phone calls through wire taps where Salgado was told the drugs came “uncut” from Sinaloa and an associate who worked for the UPS could put them in the mail, the complaint says.
The complaint also names as a defendant Jose Rodriguez, and says he communicated with his brother Asuncion “Gato” or “Garfield” Rodriguez in jail. Asuncion was arrested and jailed in 2016 in connection to multiple Atwater shootings. At the time, police named him as a “ring leader” and “key player” in the town’s Sureño gang, Sun-Star archives show.
The complaint shows that investigators intercepted communication through Snapchat and Facebook accounts for Guthrie and several other suspects.
Merced Police Sgt. Rodney Court said high-tech intelligence drove the investigation.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said since the arrests have been made, now the real work begins for his office.
Deputy District Attorneys Michael McKinney and Matthew Serratto have been working hard on the case since the arrest warrants were prepared, Morse said. Similar operations in the past, such as Operation Red Eye and Operation Red Right Hand, helped the prosecutors learn how to make the process more efficient.
Court said the goal is for many of those arrested Wednesday to do hard time.
“Our goal is to send people to state and federal prison for 25 years to life, not jail for 45 days,” he said.
Wednesday’s raids ended with more than 50 arrests and the recovery of 70 guns, 21,000 rounds of ammunition, 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine and more than $225,000.
Suddenly, marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in Stanislaus County
Unlicensed marijuana dispensaries are popping up in Stanislaus County in the regulation-free zone that has followed passage of Proposition 64 in November.
All of a sudden the small unincorporated town of Empire has three dispensaries listed on weedmaps.com: the Holistic Center, Natural Life and Empire Health and Wellness.
People who keep tabs on this leafy sector of the economy count more than 20 dispensaries in the county, and at least 25 delivery services, and there are more to come.
“They know it is a free-for-all,” said Mark Ponticelli, co-owner of a Modesto medical pot dispensary for 2 1/2 years. “They know the municipalities are not going to enforce anything now. Most of them are not paying taxes or fees. They are paying their employees under the table.”
Cities and counties are not collecting marijuana taxes from these outlets because voters have not been asked to approve taxes. Dispensaries are not able to apply for a local license, but they will need one when the state gets around to issuing licenses next year.
One newcomer, the Oklevueha Native American Church on Scenic Drive in Modesto, has tested law enforcement agencies and laws protecting freedom of religion in the different cities and states where it operates. A security guard at the church said this week that new applicants can show a note from a doctor or can sign up by paying $15.
The membership card says the bearer has the right to carry cannabis and peyote, ayahuasca, psilocyben and mushrooms as sacraments of religious ceremony. Proposition 64 legalized cannabis but not the hallucinogenic agents listed on the back of the card.
Contacted by phone, a person at the ONAC dispensary said he could not say whether peyote and mushrooms are provided to members.
“We are not capable of doing an interview,” he said.
Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said officers have made marijuana purchases at the site. “Part of it is they are hiding behind that they are a Native American church,” Carroll said, noting that the department is considering action. An ordinance makes it illegal to operate a pot dispensary in the city
Carroll said the new dispensaries in Modesto are in county pockets, except for the ONAC center.
The Utah-based church has long maintained that cannabis and peyote are sacraments of the church’s religious practice. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2004 the Oklevueha church could legally use peyote in religious ceremonies, consistent with a federal law that grants protections for native American tribes.
The church filed suit in federal court after Sonoma County deputies in 2015 seized what the church said was 600 sacramental marijuana plants from a church property near Kenwood. The case was dismissed when ONAC’s lawyers missed legal deadlines and court appearances.
Papers in another lawsuit claim ONAC is an extension of a native American Church in South Dakota and that ONAC founder James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney and another leader are joined with a Lakota Sioux church.
Stanislaus County leaders are working on a strategy for regulating legal marijuana. Board Chairman Vito Chiesa has said the county could permit a certain number of dispensaries in the unincorporated area and tax them to pay for law enforcement, code enforcement and other government services impacted by legal cannabis.
Chiesa said that enforcing a “dry” county – one with no marijuana businesses – would cost the county $2 million to $3 million a year. The county could set up a process in which proposals submitted by dispensary owners are judged on their merits and licenses are granted to a limited number, such as 10.
Chiesa said the proposals could be scored on the business’ track record, compliance with paying taxes, criminal background, product safety and so forth.
Officials need to work out policy details such as zoning, where to locate dispensaries, advertising rules and safety regulations. “If we don’t have a licensing process by Jan. 1, we are not doing our job,” Chiesa said.
A measure to tax dispensaries is expected to go before Modesto voters in November. Other cities are developing their own policies, with some not intending to allow dispensaries.
Mark Ponticelli and Marlowe Mercado are co-owners of the People’s Remedy dispensary, which serves 200 to 300 daily clients in an unincorporated area of Modesto. The partners say they are trying to set the standard for locally operated medical marijuana dispensaries and welcome regulations to safeguard the public.
The People’s Remedy has a guard posted at the door, a waiting room, clean display areas and courteous staff. Security cameras monitor every room. To pay sales taxes to the state Board of Equalization, a bag filled with $20,000 to $30,000 in cash is driven to Sacramento, the partners said. Owing to the nature of the business, it is hard to maintain relationships with banks, they said.
Mercado said he hopes the county and cities will give consideration to local operators that make a special effort over large corporations. “We have abided by the policies and the law since Day 1. I hope they would see that,” Mercado said.
Ponticelli said the industry could revert to the black market if local jurisdictions impose too many taxes and fees.
Armando Godino, a former lumber yard worker of Modesto, said he uses the People’s Remedy to treat his back spasms. “It is so professional,” he said. “They are very friendly and communicate with the members well.”
Steve Boski, who has one of the longest-standing delivery services in Modesto, said a lot of new dispensaries came out of the Bay Area because “Modesto has been an untapped market.”
Boski said authorities cracked down on his service when marijuana was illegal. He said felony charges in an ongoing case were dropped to misdemeanors with passage of Proposition 64. Now, he watches the city tolerate new dispensaries.
Boski said he has no idea how delivery services might be regulated – it has not been a primary topic for discussion. He said he’s concerned that when fees, taxes and regulations are adopted, it will hurt the smaller operators.
Ponticelli said recently that having a testing facility in Stanislaus County would enhance safety. The facilities can test marijuana for the level of the active ingredient THC and for pesticides, mold, mildew and spider mites.
Chiesa acknowledged a testing facility is another item on a long list to consider with legalized marijuana.
“There will be 40 (dispensaries) before we get around to licensing them,” Chiesa predicted.
Reports reveal new details on violence involving suspected gang members from Atwater
Newly released police reports detail a string of phone calls made between suspected Merced County gang members involving shootings, weapons and drugs sales.
A complaint filed by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office names Joaquin Flores, Robert Guthrie, Roberto Blancas-Morales, Cesar Corona and Raul Rivera Perez. Flores, Guthrie and Corona are charged in connection with a March 5 shooting. Flores, Guthrie and Blancas-Morales are charged in connection with shootings on March 24 and April 15, according to court records.
Additionally, Rivera Perez is charged with accessory for the March 24 shooting.
Flores, Corona and Rivera Perez pleaded not guilty in Merced Superior Court this week. Blancas-Morales was scheduled to be arraigned by the end of the week. Guthrie is being prosecuted in federal court.
More than 50 suspected gang members and associates were arrested in early May during “Operation Scrapbook” – including the 22-year-old “Bubba” Guthrie. Investigators have described Guthrie as an influential leader of the Sureno A-Town Locs street gang, who, they say, goes by the nickname “Bubba.”
California Department of Justice investigators worked with local law enforcement agencies for months conducting surveillance and intercepting phone calls, text messages and social media communications from Guthrie and his associates. Investigators also obtained surveillance footage that they believe shows the gang members committing a shooting.
The reports show Guthrie’s family was entrenched in the gang lifestyle and were victims of violence before gang members retaliated.
According to police reports, investigators intercepted calls on March 5 from Guthrie’s sister, Tessa Deleon, 26, telling her brother that she and another gang member were shot at by at least one person in a passing car by Jack in the Box in Atwater.
Reports say Deleon told Guthrie two members of the Delhi Locos Norteno street gang saw her passenger, a known juvenile A-Town Locos member, and began shooting at her car. “...they tried to smoke us. They shot my car,” she told Guthrie, according to the investigation reports.
Reports indicate Deleon then called Joaquin Flores, another A-Town gang leader, to recount the story to him: “Those fools from Delhi Locs. We were just driving... I pulled up next to them at the stop light. (They) looked at us, got behind us and started driving hella crazy so I started driving fast. (They) pulled up beside us and just started dumping,” according to documents.
In their reports, investigators said the calls show Deleon’s knowledge and direct involvement in the gang’s criminal activities.
Later, investigators intercepted a conversation between Flores and Guthrie. “...Your sister needs to stop hanging out with the homies bud (sic). She is going to burn her car,” Flores tells Guthrie in the police report.
Flores also warns Deleon that the rival gang members won’t take into consideration that she has children, the reports say.
After Deleon’s car was shot at, investigators intercepted multiple calls between gang members discussing the incident and making plans to buy guns. Investigators followed Guthrie as he met with a growing number of people, according to police reports.
Later that night, Merced County Sheriff’s Office received reports of a shooting at a Winton home where the two Delhi Locos gang members lived. The same night, Guthrie posted a Facebook status and deleted it minutes later. “We promote violence in my neck of the woods,” the post read, according to authorities.
According to police reports, on March 6, investigators collected bullet casings from the scene. They obtained surveillance footage of the shooting and were able to identify the shooter as the passenger in Deleon’s vehicle. On March 7, investigators intercepted calls from Guthrie discussing the incident.
Investigators believed the calls were significant because, they said, the calls show Guthrie had direct knowledge of the shooting, he identifies the shooter and the calls suggest an ongoing feud between the gang “destined to lead to another shooting,” reports say.
“The brazen and reckless attacks are meant to bolster the reputation of the gang and strike fear in their rivals and any would be witnesses,” the report says.
The reports detail surveillance footage and communications about multiple gun and drug sales and connects the A-Town gang members to additional shootings on March 24 and April 15, police say.
Deputy District Attorney Michael McKinney said the defendants will be tried together. “They reason they’re all charged together is because of the overarching gang structure and how these crimes were perpetrated,” he said.
Judge Ronald W. Hanson refused to release Flores and Corona from jail on electronic monitors and increased their bail to $1 million. Rivera Perez also was denied release on an electronic monitor, and his bail remained at $150,000. Blancas-Morales also remains in jail on $1 million.
The defendants are due back in court for preliminary hearings next month.
Merced man embezzled $450K, including Christmas bonuses of workers, police say
Investigators are looking for a man with ties to Merced who allegedly embezzled more than $450,000 from his employer in San Joaquin County, the district attorney’s office said on Thursday.
An arrest warrant for Carl Joseph Means, 36, of Merced was issued on Wednesday. The former plant manager for AMG Resources Corp. in Lathrop is accused of embezzling $455,949 from the metal recycler, authorities said.
He is on the lam and thought to be in the Los Angeles area, authorities said.
Means allegedly arranged for a series of trucks between 2013 and 2016 to take inventory from the metal recycler to Atwater Iron and Metal in Merced County, where the materials were sold. Means collected checks for the materials and never reported them to his employer, authorities said.
During the four years of embezzlement, investigators said, Means suspended the Christmas bonuses of plant workers, telling them the plant could not afford to pay out the money.
Means was charged on Wednesday with grand theft and falsification of corporate books, a felony, according to authorities.
Anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts or this case is asked to call Lathrop Police Department Detective Ryan Luiz at 209-647-6407.
The district attorney’s office urged all businesses to get training and adopt practices to avoid, detect, stop and recover from embezzlement.
FBI agents now in Ripon address everything from terrorism to white-collar crime
Threats to our nation from within and without aren’t declining, and the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills are no exception, an FBI official said Friday. And a recently opened Ripon office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation will allow agents to respond to those “diverse and complex” threats with the ability to expand as needed, said Acting Special Agent in Charge Tom Osborne in a phone interview from Sacramento.
The resident agency located at 650 N. Wilma Ave. in Ripon consolidates the resources previously housed in the Stockton and Modesto resident agencies, said Gina B. Swankie, public affairs specialist with the FBI’s field office in Sacramento. The resident agency is a satellite of the FBI Sacramento office and serves Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, she said. Sacramento serves 34 counties in total.
Staffing at the Ripon office, which opened March 20, includes 14 agents, Osborne said. They are “basically broken into two squads. One squad of seven agents works on national security, counterintelligence, terrorism and cybercrime,” he said. “The other squad is everything else criminal – gangs, organized crime, white-collar crime, drugs.”
Out of the latter side, the FBI operates its Central California Gang Impact Task Force and its Stockton Safe Streets Task Force, Osborne said. The national-security squad operates a Joint Terrorism Task Force.
A lot went into deciding the location of the Ripon office, Osborne said, and it’s “happenstance” that it is less than a half-mile from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services Central Valley Crime Lab. The lab is behind the Ripon Police Department. It’s always good for synergy if the FBI happens to find a space close to other agencies with like goals, he said.
At one point, maybe a decade ago, when the FBI couldn’t find a suitable space elsewhere in Modesto, it operated out of the DoubleTree Hotel, Osborne said. In more recent years, it had another home in Modesto. But neither the Modesto nor Stockton resident agencies has space to grow at their sites, and an advantage of the Ripon location is room for expansion, he said.
The change in location is likely to go unnoticed by residents of Modesto, Ripon and Stockton. “We’re not first responders; what we do is investigative in nature,” Osborne said. “If there was, say, an active shooter situation, we of course would respond. Our overall mission in the bureau is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution.”
The Sacramento field office and, by extension, the Ripon office can be reached through www.fbi.gov/sacramento or tips.fbi.gov. And anyone can go to the Wilma Avenue office for business such as filling out a complaint, Osborne said. “It’s not a secret location.”
Modesto no longer No. 1 in national car theft ranking
The Modesto area had 250 fewer car thefts last year, dropping the city and Stanislaus County from the infamous top spot in a national ranking to No. 4.
The Modesto Metropolitan Area, which includes Stanislaus and its nine cities, was the nation’s car theft capital in 2015 and has ranked first six other times going back to 2004.
Albuquerque, N.M., took over the title in 2016 with 10,011 stolen cars, or a national high of 1,114 thefts per 100,000 residents, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Pueblo, Colo., had the second-highest rate with 899 thefts per 100,000 residents. Bakersfield was third with 855 thefts per 100,000 residents.
The Modesto metro area moved to the fourth spot with 3,820 auto thefts last year, down from 4,072 in 2015. The new rate was 768 thefts per 100,000 residents.
A jump in auto thefts moved Merced to No. 7 after ranking 21st in 2015. The Merced metro area had 1,605 stolen cars last year compared to 1,132 thefts the previous year.
A Modesto law enforcement spokeswoman didn’t cite any particular reason for last year’s decline in stolen vehicles.
Heather Graves of Modesto police said the department has promoted car-theft prevention to the public, for example, by handing out steering-wheel locks to drivers who own cars that are common targets of theft. Prevention measures are also stressed by police officers who talk to residents at neighborhood watch meetings.
Residents should be compulsive about keeping doors and windows locked. In cold weather months, leaving a warming vehicle unattended in the driveway is an invitation for theft.
According to the NICB “Hot Spots” report, California has six metropolitan areas in the national Top 10. The other metro areas are Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, ranked 5th, and San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward and Fresno ranked 8th and 9th, respectively.
The NICB, a nonprofit group based in Des Plaines, Ill, again reported that vehicle thefts are at historic lows in the United States. The 707,758 total thefts in 2015 was 57 percent lower than the number in 1991, when 1.66 million thefts were reported.
The Modesto area had 7,071 auto thefts in 2005, much higher than last year’s total.
Merced ranked in the top 10 worst cities in nation for car thefts
Merced County has the seventh highest rate of car theft in the nation, according to a nonprofit that tracks insurance data.
The data shows 1,622 cars were stolen in Merced County in 2016, a rate of 660 per 100,000 residents, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s “Hot Spots” report. Albuquerque, N.M., topped the list at 1,114 cars stolen per capita, according to numbers released this month.
Merced, which ranked 21st last year, is one of six metropolitan areas in California that landed on the top ten list. Bakersfield (No. 3, 854), Modesto (No. 4, 767) and Riverside (No. 5, 679) all topped Merced in thefts per 100,000 residents, while San Francisco (No. 8, 640) and Fresno (No. 9, 631) trailed it.
The Los Angeles area saw the most thefts at 60,670, but has a much larger population to balance out its rate when compared to central San Joaquin Valley towns.
Most cars are stolen and sold whole or in parts in an organized effort, according to Merced police Lt. Jay Struble, who oversees the Operations Division, which includes auto theft and other crimes.
“There’s got to be a black market for them,” he said. “They’re not going to steal it if they can’t get money for something.”
Nationally, the number of cars stolen in 2016 was about 7 percent greater than the previous year, but theft is down from its peak, the nonprofit said. Thefts were at an all-time high in 1991 with more than 1.6 million reported thefts. The count fell by 57 percent between the peak and 2015, according to the nonprofit.
“While the final result for 2016 is expected to be higher than 2015’s number, the vehicle theft environment across the country is vastly improved from the 1990s,” the nonprofit said in a news release.
Cars made by Honda and Acura have traditionally been the most often stolen cars in Merced, Struble said. More recently the thieves have expanded to Ford trucks, and cars made by Lexus or Mitsubishi, to name a few.
Beyond simple efforts like locking the doors and removing the car keys, the NCIB recommends car owners step up theft provision efforts. There are an array of audible alarms and locks on the market.
Struble said drivers are often more likely to leave the keys in the car during cold months. He went on to say home burglars are known to break into homes, find keys in plain view and steal the car sitting in the driveway.
Owners should consider further protection, like kill switches and “smart keys,” according to the Des Plaines, Ill.-based nonprofit. The organization funded by insurers uses law enforcement and U.S. census data to compile its annual “Hot Spots” report.
The nonprofit also recommends installing a tracking device, which allows an owner to find a stolen vehicle with their home computer.
Any prevention effort is a good idea, Struble said. “It’s definitely a step up and a deterrent,” he said. “It makes your vehicle harder to steal than the next one.”
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Household Poverty And Nonfatal Violent Victimization, 2008–2012
Erika Harrell, Ph.D., Lynn Langton, Ph.D., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Marcus Berzofsky, Dr.P.H., Lance Couzens, Hope Smiley-McDonald, Ph.D., RTI International
Presents findings from 2008 to 2012 on the relationship between households that were above or below the federal poverty level and nonfatal violent victimization, including rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. This report examines the violent victimization experiences of persons living in households at various levels of poverty, focusing on type of violence, victim's race or Hispanic origin, and location of residence. It also examines the percentage of violent victimizations reported to the police by poverty level. Data are from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which collects information on nonfatal crimes, reported and not reported to the police, against persons age 12 or older from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households. During 2012, about 92,390 households and 162,940 persons were interviewed for the NCVS.
For the period 2008–12—
- Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).
- Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
- The overall pattern of poor persons having the highest rates of violent victimization was consistent for both whites and blacks. However, the rate of violent victimization for Hispanics did not vary across poverty levels.
- Poor Hispanics (25.3 per 1,000) had lower rates of violence compared to poor whites (46.4 per 1,000) and poor blacks (43.4 per 1,000).
- Poor persons living in urban areas (43.9 per 1,000) had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas (38.8 per 1,000).
- Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).