St. Louis police fighting back in theft of Chryslers

Saturday, January 18, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Young car thieves speeding through metro-area streets in stolen Chryslers have been involved in five fatal collisions in as many months.

Police said teenage thieves in the region have learned to steal Chryslers quickly by breaking the steering columns on the vehicles.

And St. Louis police, who had an officer killed in one of the crashes, have had just about enough of it.

They're asking area schools and DaimlerChrysler to get involved in efforts to stop the thefts.

"It seems the entire world of 14- to 17-year-olds are taking cars," said police chief Joe Mokwa at a lunch Thursday. "Graduation rates are abysmal. The car thieves are not at home."

Mokwa said more needs to be done to keep kids in school and out of trouble. He's enlisting other police chiefs to ask DaimlerChrysler to address the problem of stolen cars. Police spokesman Richard Wilkes said Friday the chief will probably take up the issue at an upcoming gathering of police chiefs.

St. Louis, like many other cities, is seeing more incidents involving stolen Chryslers, Wilkes said. Last year, the department said Chryslers make up about 30 percent of city auto thefts and called that a dramatic increase.

Chrysler is looking into the issue, company spokesman Cole Quinnell said. He said Chrysler offers theft deterrents on many vehicles. Those deterrents include car alarms and ignition immobilizers, devices that won't allow a car to start without the right key.

Police are looking for ways to reduce the numbers of high-speed chases and deadly crashes involving stolen cars.

Under a new policy instituted last May, St. Louis officers are to chase a stolen vehicle only if they believe a fleeing suspect attempted to commit a felony and that pursuit will not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to people or property.

Today, police are teaming up with a car insurance company to sell steering wheel locking devices to residents of one neighborhood for $5 each.

Major Roy Joachimstaler said the steering wheel lock program is intended to reduce thefts of all cars, not just Chryslers.

Nationwide, the Highway Loss Data Institute found Chryslers filled up half of the spots on its top 10 for most frequent insurance theft claims for model years 1999-2001.

Around St. Louis, teenagers stealing the cars have led to fatal consequences:

Jan. 15: A 15-year-old St. Louis boy driving a stolen Chrysler New Yorker killed Eddie Robinson, 65, of Velda City. Robinson died instantly when his Oldsmobile was struck in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy.

Dec. 17: A 14-year-old died after he crashed a stolen 1996 Chrysler Sebring convertible into a concrete foundation and light post. Police said they briefly stopped the car, lost it in dense fog and were not chasing it at the time of the crash.

Nov. 26: 18-year-old Kenneth Wilkerson died after his car was struck by a stolen Dodge Intrepid. A 15-year-old suspect is accused of second-degree murder and auto tampering.

Nov. 1: A passenger, Sharon Massey, 18, of St. Louis died after the driver of the stolen Chrysler Sebring she was riding in fled O'Fallon, Ill. police.

Aug. 29: Officer Michael Barwick, 27, died and his partner Jenna Christian, 23, was seriously injured after their patrol car crashed while following a stolen 2002 Chrysler Sebring.

Deon Hampton and Stephion Sutton, both 18-year-olds from St. Louis, were charged with murder. Four 14-year-olds in the stolen car were turned over to juvenile authorities.

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