Even with nowhere to go, Juneau car thieves are a growing problem

Statistics for 2011 through 2014 are from a 2016 Juneau Police Department annual report. Statistics for 2015-2017 were provided directly by JPD. Cases are cleared when there's an arrest in the case. (Graphic by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)

Statistics for 2011 to 2014 are from a 2016 Juneau Police Department annual report. Statistics for 2015 to 2017 were provided directly by JPD. Cases are cleared when there’s an arrest in the case. (Graphic by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)

Juneau isn’t on the road system, yet car thefts in the de facto island city are on the rise. In fact, 2017 has already surpassed the number of stolen motor vehicles reported in recent years, and more than doubled since 2014.

Adam Savage moved to Juneau this spring. Originally from Seattle, the 35-year-old appreciates Juneau’s small-town vibe. Even getting his car stolen reminds him of how close his adopted community is.

“I thought that in a little community like this there wouldn’t be a big theft problem, just because where are you going to take a car?” Savage said. “You can only go so far – there’s only 50 miles of road.”

After the brakes went bad in Savage’s 1998 Dodge Avenger, he left it in a restaurant parking lot in the Mendenhall Valley.

“I just probably got complacent thinking that it’s a small town that I could trust everybody in town,” he said.

But when the parts came in a couple weeks later, the car was gone.

“I don’t know what the actual statistics are. I thought I was the only car that probably ever got stolen in this little town,” he said, laughing.

Savage reported the car stolen. And then a lucky break. The next day, Nov. 21, authorities said Angelo Lerma, 22, tried to register the Avenger at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

DMV employees notified the authorities. Lerma was arrested on an outstanding warrant stemming from DUI and reckless driving charges earlier this year.

But the car wasn’t there. Savage called around and posted on the Juneau Community Concern Facebook group. The response overwhelmed him.

“Then all of a sudden I get a response of 200 people,” he said. “It’s really just kind of a close-knit. Everybody has everybody’s back around here, which is a really cool thing.”

Savage said a friend found his car and “stole it back.”

Angelo Lerma attempted to register a stolen 1998 Dodge Avenger in his name at the Juneau DMV. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant after the authorities were alerted. (Photo courtesy Adam Savage)

Authorities say Angelo Lerma attempted to register this stolen 1998 Dodge Avenger in his name at the Juneau Division of Motor Vehicles. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant after the authorities were alerted. (Photo courtesy Adam Savage)

“From the outside it didn’t look bad, just a spray-painted hood,” Savage said, describing the car. “But then there were hypodermic needles in there. There were little bags for some sort of drugs all over the place. The headrest from the driver’s side was gone. Somebody’d need a headrest that bad, you know, to steal a whole car for a headrest?”

The door handle was removed and the gas cap was missing, too. Someone tore up the trunk, and also tore the ignition lock out of the steering column, so the car could be started with a screwdriver.

Adam Savage recovered his car that was stolen from a restaurant parking lot in Mendenhall Valley. But it wasn't it great shape. Someone had tore out the ignition switch and trashed the interior. (Photo courtesy Adam Savage)

Adam Savage recovered his car that was stolen from a restaurant parking lot in Mendenhall Valley. But it wasn’t it great shape. Someone had torn out the ignition switch and trashed the interior. (Photo courtesy Adam Savage)

“Needless to say, my key didn’t work when I got there,” Savage said, laughing.

According to the Juneau Police Department, Savage’s Avenger was one of about 79 vehicles reported stolen so far this year.

The Juneau Police Department reports all but five of the vehicles reported stolen this year have been recovered. It’s likely to be at least the third year in a row that the department logs a recovery rate above 90 percent.

As for the Avenger, Savage would like to sell it. But with all of its problems, including the bad brakes, it’s been a hard sell. He’s had a couple of offers to take the car for free.

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