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Auto theft surges in Duluth

Recovery rate for stolen vehicles is in the high-80% to lower-90% range. But they're often in rough shape by the time they turn up.

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Cory Garden, left, of Northstar Towing, watches as Andy Leibel of USA Towing pulls up a stolen car from below West Skyline Parkway in November 2017.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The number of vehicles stolen in the city spiked in 2021, jumping nearly 43% from pre-pandemic levels. In all, 303 vehicles went missing, but the vast majority were recovered within five days or less, according to Duluth Police Investigator Morgan Cekalla.

That's not to say all those vehicles were in great shape. Cekalla said some were found repainted and the interiors were often trashed or littered with hypodermic needles.

Duluth appears to have a bigger problem with vehicle thefts than would be expected for a city of its size. The latest stats available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed the per capita rate of vehicle thefts in metropolitan areas nationally was 234.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020. If Duluth fit within those norms, it could expect to see about 203 vehicle thefts annually. But the 2021 numbers exceeded that mark by 49%.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Cekalla said many of the thefts could probably be chalked up as joyriding.

In his experience, Cekalla said vehicles are most often taken when they're left running or when the driver has left a key or fob behind.

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Duluth's recovery rate for stolen vehicles has been hovering in the high-80% to lower-90% range, he said. But they're often in rough shape by the time they turn up.

"People almost seem to live out of them for a few days before we get them back," Cekalla said.

While vehicle thefts can be difficult to prosecute, particularly when the stolen property is abandoned, Cekalla said he has had success bringing charges against responsible parties, sometimes as a result of video surveillance and other times because an individual attempts to flee a missing vehicle.

Cekalla doesn't see local vehicle thieves typically profiting much from their crimes.

"In the bigger cities, you have theft rings that usually target the most expensive types of vehicles. Then, they're scrapping them out. And they're very advanced. We don't necessarily see that in our area, but we need to understand that often these vehicles are stolen and used in other higher-level crimes, such as a recent bank robbery in Duluth," he said.

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As part of its Catguard initiative, Minnesota is using special labels that etch an identification number into catalytic converters to track the theft of the parts.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Commerce

"Where we do see more of a crime ring is with the theft of catalytic converters, where you actually have scrapping companies — that I can't name at this point — that are accepting known-stolen catalytic converters that are being taken off people's vehicles and costing them thousands of dollars to repair," Cekalla said.

Catalytic converters contain precious metals — including rhodium, palladium and platinum — making them a valuable commodity.

While Minnesota sits toward the middle of state rankings for missing vehicle reports, it recently made the top-five list for the prevalence of catalytic converter thefts, Cekalla said. He noted that thefts of vehicles and parts cost all consumers in the form of higher insurance premiums.

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But steps are being taken to deter thefts of catalytic converters, which are required by law to reduce emissions from motorized vehicles.

Cekalla said Duluth is participating in a Minnesota Department of Commerce pilot program using a product called the Catguard. It's a free label that can be adhered to a catalytic converter, then daubed with a chemical that etches identifying marks into the metal that can be used to track the movement or sale of stolen converters.

Last week, the Duluth City Council also voted to approve the city's participation in another Department of Commerce initiative that will enable the local police department to seek reimbursement for overtime pay costs it incurs related to the investigation of vehicle and catalytic converter thefts.

Pandemic impact

Cekalla said people who were arrested for stealing vehicles during the heights of the pandemic often were less likely to be held prisoner as they awaited trials. To reduce crowding and the associated increased risks spreading disease, he said detention space was devoted more readily to housing violent suspects rather than those accused of property crimes.

"There have been more criminals on the streets and more criminals that steal vehicles. They're often repeat offenders, and they were just not being held accountable during that time period," he said. "I would say that's probably the reason we saw that big spike in Duluth."

Cekalla agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic may have fueled the vehicle theft spree in another way as well, with more people working from home.

"People were leaving their vehicles parked longer and they were checking on them far less," he said, making them more susceptible to theft.

There are signs the upward trend in local car thefts is reversing. In the first quarter of this year, about 40% fewer missing vehicles were reported than during the same period in 2021.

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Unlike the Twin Cities, Duluth has not seen any pandemic carjacking activity to date, according to Cekalla.

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