In one way, it seemed a brilliant crime.

The thief had learned that some downtown Omaha condo buildings place key cards in lock boxes near the front door. They do this so real estate agents and cable company repairmen can easily get inside, but the thief recognized it for what it was: an easy target.

He busted a locked lock box off a downtown condo building — the downtown condo building where my wife, Sarah, and I live. Then he pried open the lock box. Then, on a Friday afternoon in June, he used the key card inside to enter our underground parking garage.

He drove out of that parking garage on our neighbor’s limited-edition Harley Davidson motorcycle.

In another way, this June motorcycle theft may strike you as stunningly stupid. Stupid because when the thief entered our building, he did not wear sunglasses or a hoodie or a Ronald Reagan mask like Patrick Swayze did when he was robbing banks in Point Break.

He did not wear any disguise. And then, at close range, he stared straight into a surveillance camera.

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But, to me, the most stunning thing about this recent theft in my building wasn’t its creativity or its idiocy. As I talked to local experts, it became clear that the most notable thing about this theft is the mind-numbing regularity that Omaha vehicle thefts occur.

“People think, ‘there’s no way they are gonna come out to my west Omaha neighborhood and steal my car,’ and that’s just untrue,” says Lt. Mark Desler, head of the Omaha Police Department’s auto theft unit. “We have an auto theft in every precinct, all the time. It’s happening everywhere. It’s universal.”

More than 3,000 vehicles were stolen in Omaha in 2018 — an average of nearly nine per day.

That’s actually a far lower number of automobiles than thieves swiped in 2017. That year, per capita, Omaha ranked as the 12th-worst metro area in the country for auto thefts, according to FBI crime data analyzed by Omaha World-Herald reporter Henry Cordes.

Things improved markedly in 2018, when thefts dropped 11 percent following aggressive work by veteran auto theft detectives, Desler says.

But that marked improvement doesn’t change the reality that getting your car stolen is one of the most likely ways you will be victimized in a crime. And it doesn’t change the reality of the auto theft map, which shows that in any given month, auto thefts happen all over the city. In fact, the two precincts that routinely show the most car thefts are the biggest precincts with the most cars: northwest and southwest Omaha.

“Target-rich environments,” Desler says.

No one knows exactly why Omaha had a rash of car thefts in 2016 and 2017, when our city twice cracked the top 20 in most cars stolen per capita in the country’s 100 biggest metro areas.

I heard at least three theories:

Omahans are too trusting, and thus too many of us leave our cars unlocked. This grows exponentially worse in the winter, when it gets cold out and people start their cars outside and leave them unattended as they warm.

In December, one out of every three cars taken had the keys left inside of them or in the ignition, Desler said. Of the first 30 cars stolen in January, 12 had the keys in them.

“It can be a crime of opportunity,” says Ryan Spohn, a University of Nebraska at Omaha criminology professor and director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research. “You see them running on cold days, you can see the exhaust pouring out of a running vehicle from a block away. They really are good targets.”

“Just lock your car,” Desler said.

Desler suspects that loosened state sentencing guidelines, which reclassified some auto thefts as lesser felonies or even misdemeanors, had an effect on Omaha’s higher auto theft numbers in 2016 and 2017. He said that in 2018, a tweak to OPD rules ensured that anyone who stole a car would be booked into jail. He attributes this tweak, as well as intense effort from the auto theft unit, for the big drop in 2018.

But Spohn doubts that sentencing guidelines had much to do with the 2016-2017 increase, pointing out that such changes rarely result in quickly altered behavior from a large group of criminals.

Traditionally, Omaha also has had an older auto fleet, a third theory goes. These vehicles, like older Honda Civics and Accords, tend to be far easier to unlock with a skeleton key than newer models, Spohn says. But those easy-to-steal cars are also now increasingly relegated to the junkyard.

So no one really knows why auto thefts jumped in 2016, went even higher in 2017 and then dropped in 2018. But we do know who steals cars and why, Desler says.

People who steal cars tend to drive them around for a while and then abandon them — most aren’t pawned or sold for scrap, as you might imagine. People who steal cars often do so repeatedly — the auto theft unit ends up recognizing repeat offenders, same as the gang unit recognizes gang leaders.

People who do use stolen cars to commit other crimes tend to shoplift or steal. They most often do so to feed a drug addiction, Desler says. Rarely are these car thieves violent criminals.

And all of this, particularly the fact that most stolen vehicles are simply abandoned along an Omaha street, makes it much harder to actually catch those who steal cars.

The Omaha Police Department has a clearance rate on auto theft that hovers around 20 percent, meaning they arrest one suspect for every five auto thefts. At first glance, that seems low.

But, in fact, that clearance rate is shockingly high, nearly double the U.S. metro area clearance rate for auto theft. When it comes to auto theft in the United States, catching one out of every five car thieves is stellar.

“Often we just don’t have any good evidence,” Desler says. “It’s, ‘I woke up in the morning and my car was gone.’ ”

It appears that the brilliant yet not-so-brilliant thief who drove a limited-edition Harley out of my building’s parking garage in June may turn out to be one of the unlucky ones.

In July, because of the good surveillance footage and a Crime Stoppers tip, Omaha police put out a warrant for Edward Beaman. He was arrested in August and charged with burglary because he allegedly broke into the building before allegedly stealing the bike.

Happily, the bike was found, but sadly it was smashed up and totaled, my neighbor told me last year.

Happily, our building no longer has a lock box, but sadly, it’s a bit harder for repairmen to enter the building.

According to court files, Beaman pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial.

If the police have the right guy, they can check one car theft off the list. Which is nice, until you consider that, on average, nine more cars will be stolen today.

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