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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He was just walking to work at the Nebraska Furniture Mart — his daily hike to help provide for his wife and children. Out of nowhere, Jared Clawson, then 37, was ambushed by a man he didn’t know. Read more
A 54-year-old man faces three additional rape charges after officials say his DNA connected him to attacks on three different women years ago. Read more
JUNE 15: Anthony Garcia’s attorneys tried to establish that mental illness — fueled by his failure to live up to his parents’ expectations that he become a doctor — drove Garcia to four murders. The arguments came as the lawyers seek to keep Garcia from receiving the death penalty. READ MORE.
JUNE 6: Numerous changes have been made at the Omaha Police Department in the year since the in-custody death of Zachary Bearheels, who was shocked with a Taser a dozen times. Bearheels, a Native American, was bipolar and schizophrenic. READ MORE.
JUNE 5: The scene in downtown Omaha on Saturday night could have come straight out of a gangster movie. Rival gangs came upon each other on the Farnam Street sidewalk along Gene Leahy Mall, and someone from each gang started to fire. Jasmine Harris, 20, was fatally shot, seven others were injured and vehicles along Farnam Street were sprayed with bullets. READ MORE.
JUNE 19: A west Omaha man who sent prostitutes to strip on his neighbor’s porch was sentenced Monday to six years in prison for possessing child pornography. READ MORE.
APRIL 20: Kayviaun Nelson was shot at the Irvington Walmart Supercenter at 6304 N. 99th St. She had been involved in a dispute elsewhere in Omaha and “it came to a head” in the Walmart lot. Two have been arrested in connection with her death. READ MORE.
MAY 22: The Omaha man — 19 when he committed his crimes — had just told a judge that his life hit a turning point after he had sat in jail for the past seven months, thinking about his crime of helping another teen use an online dating service to lure seven men to be robbed. Then Judge Mark Ashford pronounced his sentence: 24 to 40 years in prison. READ MORE.
JUNE 22: A half-dozen people were involved in the half-baked scheme to bribe a juror who would help decide the fate of a double-murder defendant, Douglas County prosecutors say. READ MORE.
MAY 1: In a cold case that lasted 10 years from crime to conviction, it took just 10 minutes for Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka to sentence Charles Simmer, 34, to a life term for the Nov. 3, 2007, slaying of his aunt. READ MORE.
APRIL 26: Jacob Ford contended that he dropped his baby daughter and she hit her head on a crib railing and the floor. But prosecutors argued — and a judge agreed — that shaking and slamming were the causes of the massive brain damage that 7-week-old Skyler suffered. READ MORE.
APRIL 20: Judge Shelly Stratman estimated, conservatively, that the then-9-year-old boy was sexually assaulted about 52 times by a man he considered a father figure. It would have been easier to stay silent. But he spoke up. “He’s a very brave young man,” said Stratman. READ MORE.
APRIL 11: “I just enjoy killing. Simple as that.” In the days after he strangled an acquaintance, Airman 1st Class Rhianda Dillard, Wilsey poured out his thoughts, and his murderous ambitions, in the handwritten pages of his journal. READ MORE.
APRIL 9: A woman accused of driving drunk and causing a crash that killed a girl and injured the girl’s mother pleaded guilty to motor vehicle homicide and drunken driving/causing serious bodily injury. READ MORE.
JUNE 21: In one swipe, Christopher Wheeler forever changed Teresa Spagna’s life — leaving a “big scar” across her throat, and her psyche. Judge Shelly Stratman sentenced Wheeler to 30 days in jail, followed by five years of probation. Wheeler, who had no record, had faced up to 20 years in prison. READ MORE.
JUNE 5: Brandon Weathers is sentenced to 160-200 years in prison. For the vicious torture and rapes of four women in 2002 and 2004. For violating the sanctity of their homes, their bodies and their sense of security. For defying the law — with an assist from state prison officials — by refusing to submit a DNA sample. READ MORE.
MARCH 2: A judge had just lamented the turf war that claimed the life of 22-year-old Terrance Gunn. Then the feud spilled onto the judge’s turf. READ MORE.
MARCH 1: An Omaha man was convicted Thursday of three counts of first-degree murder and weapon use in the July 2012 deaths of a methamphetamine dealer and his teenage sons. READ MORE.
MARCH 1: Judge Shelly Stratman had sentenced defendants for horrible fatal crashes. Never had she seen a wreck where everyone survived but had such wildly different views of the crash’s impact. READ MORE.
FEB. 28: Every morning, Steven Edwards would text a friend 20 years his senior to make sure he was OK. Edwards also checked on homeless Native Americans and let people stay in his apartment, although he himself had little to spare. Amid his kindness, he was fatally stabbed and set on fire by his niece’s boyfriend, whom he let stay under his roof. READ MORE.
FEB. 21: A former Douglas County jailer at the center of a love-triangle killing will see the inside of a correctional facility from a new perspective. READ MORE.
FEB. 9: The now-17-year-old victim gave an ultimatum to Judge Duane Dougherty: Impose a sentence of 52 years. “If you give him anything less than (that), you are basically saying that you don’t care if it happens again,” the girl said. “You’re putting another person at risk of having to go through what I’ve gone through. And nobody should have to go through what I’ve gone through.” READ MORE.
MARCH 10: Three girls who looked to Lee Dunbar as a father were, instead, sexually assaulted by him. A jury decided as much in January. On Friday, Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk sentenced Dunbar, a 67-year-old retired Omaha fire captain, to the minimum sentence of 15 years on each of the five first-degree sexual assault counts he had been convicted of. READ MORE.
JAN. 23: A gang member prosecutors describe as a “menace” was sentenced to life in prison for firing 10 shots at a rival gang member in the middle of the day — and instead killing Barbara Williams, 55, a grandma who had been chatting on a stoop. READ MORE.
JAN. 18: A man accused of fatally shooting an Army sergeant outside a bar stole his necklaces and later admitted to the shooting, a prosecutor said. Kyle LeFlore, 27, was shot in the chest at close range and died soon after being rushed to the hospital early Jan. 6. READ MORE.