By Larry Barszewski
Stealing luxury is easier than you might think when it comes to cars in South Palm Beach County’s coastal communities.
While the U.S. top-10 list of stolen vehicles includes a number of Hondas, Toyotas and pickup trucks, most of the 11 cars ripped off in Gulf Stream last year had more panache: three Porsches, two Land Rovers, two Mercedes-Benzes, two BMWs, an Audi and a Dodge (a rental, of course). Thieves found 10 of them unlocked with the keys or key fobs inside.
The seven cars taken in Ocean Ridge in 2020 were also left unlocked with the key/key fobs inside. It was the same story in Highland Beach, where a Mercedes and a Cadillac were stolen, and for the lone auto theft in Manalapan — a Rolls-Royce.
Despite years of police messages advising people to do more to keep their cars secure, the warnings often fail to register with residents who have been lulled into a false sense of complacency by the barrier island’s low crime rates and small-town ambience.
“I think that sense of security and well-being in where you live, that’s why we have to hammer away at ‘please lock your car; don’t leave valuables inside your car; take your keys with you,’” Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins said. “I don’t want you to build a fortress around yourself, but take simple precautions and avoid giving someone else the opportunity.”
Car thefts are a problem nationwide and the keyless ignition systems haven’t helped as careless owners like the convenience of leaving their key fobs in center console cupholders. Still, there’s no denying the barrier island’s upscale reputation is a magnet for thieves looking for pricier models.
The good news? Many of the automobiles are recovered, generally very quickly, with little or no damage done. They’re often found abandoned in Broward County or northern Miami-Dade County, possibly taken by teens out for joyrides or used in other crimes.
But some of the priciest autos are still missing. The two Land Rovers and two of three Porsches stolen in Gulf Stream remain missing, raising concern that organized crime may play a role in at least some of the thefts. One of the Land Rovers, valued at $217,000, was taken from a billionaire’s gated estate that has its own security team.
Police won’t get a better idea of what’s happening until they’re able to nab more thieves.
“I firmly believe that it is organized crime that is doing this,” Manalapan Police Chief Carmen Mattox said of the auto thefts in his town and other coastal communities over the past year. “Our investigations have not concluded anything other than recovery of the vehicle. We have yet to make an arrest for anything.”
No hour of day is safe
The thefts happen both at night and in broad daylight — even when a driver steps away from a car for just a few minutes. Videos from license-plate reading cameras have recorded stolen vehicles heading to the mainland before anyone knew they’d been taken. Sometimes they are followed by another vehicle stolen from somewhere else, likely driven by an accomplice who brought the car thief into town.
“It’s been very unpredictable,” Gulf Stream Police Chief Ed Allen said. “It’s not like a lot of crimes, where they develop a pattern. Here it’s been all hours of the day or night.”
After Gulf Stream police responded to the report of a late-afternoon theft of a Mercedes on Polo Drive a year ago, they found an Infiniti stolen from Boca Raton parked in a driveway just a few doors away, probably driven by a thief who switched rides to the Mercedes.
There was more to the story that day. A rented Dodge Charger parked next door disappeared the next morning. The people renting the Charger were going out to dinner at around the same time the Mercedes was stolen. They couldn’t find the Charger’s keys, which they thought had been left in the vehicle, so they took another car instead and planned to look for the missing keys later. The Charger was still there when they came home that night, but was gone by morning.
Police recovered the Dodge the next day in Sunrise and the Mercedes a week after that in North Miami.
At a Gulf Stream home on Ocean Boulevard in June, a Porsche owner left the car unlocked with the keys inside and proceeded to get dinner through a food delivery service that night. The car was gone the following morning, apparently stolen by thieves who knew it was unlocked with the keys inside.
Ocean Ridge license-plate reading cameras showed a stolen Lexus coming onto the island at 6:40 that morning and heading back over the bridge — following the now-stolen Porsche — five minutes later. The Porsche has not been recovered.
Why fancy cars are marks
Police say all the fancy doo-dads cars have these days can make a thief’s job easier.
“The invention of keyless start technology reduces vehicle security when the key fob is left inside an unattended vehicle. Groups of juveniles are targeting these vehicles to steal or burglarize,” Mattox said in a memo to Manalapan commissioners in January.
Some newer model cars have telltale exterior signs that show they are unlocked, making them an easier mark for would-be thieves, he said. The thieves will either search the car for valuables, or if they’re luckier and a key fob has been left inside, they’ll just drive off with the car and its contents, he said.
Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann says residents shouldn’t let their guard down — no matter what kind of car they own — when it comes to these thieves.
“They’re not fussy. Obviously, they’ll take any car that has the keys in it, so it doesn’t have to be the top-echelon cars,” Hartmann said.
Additional police staffing, more patrols, camera surveillance and other measures have been an increased deterrent against auto thefts and other crimes, but it’s hard to protect against owners who leave an open invitation to would-be thieves, police said.
“I remember one of the folks where the car was stolen, said, ‘Where I grew up, we never locked our doors,’” Hutchins said. “That’s not a prudent thing to do in this day and age, no matter where you are.”