The rural Stanislaus County community that’s grabbed unwanted headlines as home of convicted killer Scott Peterson and former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit now has another unflattering distinction: The nation’s car theft capital for the third year in a row.
Modesto and the surrounding area had 1,419 thefts for every 100,000 residents in 2005, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau data released last month. More than 7,000 cars were reported stolen in the area that year, amounting to about one car stolen every 75 minutes.
The findings harm Modesto’s efforts to attract young families and maintain its quaint bedroom community image, city officials said.
“Modesto wants to be known as a Tree City, USA, as a community with good school systems, a great place to raise a family … not as the Car Theft Capital of the country,” said Modesto police spokesman Rick Applegate. “The officers in this county live in their communities, they raise their families here and take pride in their work.”
Many of the thefts are methamphetamine-related, authorities said.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said hearing the news “felt like somebody hit you in the stomach. It just takes your strength away,” he said.
Four other cities in the country’s top 10 were also in California’s agriculture-rich but drug-plagued Central Valley — Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno and Visalia.
Modesto, which has a population of about 200,000 people, easily beat out big cities in car thefts per capita, including Los Angeles (ranked 22nd), Chicago (ranked 78th) and New York (190th).
Car thefts are declining in the county but are not reflected in the insurance bureau’s report, county officials said.
Increased bail amounts, stiffer jail sentences and increased use of “bait” cars to lure thieves helped reduce thefts by 27 percent through March, according to the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force.
But many of the changes were implemented too late in 2005 to affect the ranking, authorities said.
Authorities are optimistic the ranking will drop next year.
“Being a rural community for so long, a lot of people think that windows can be left down, doors unlocked, and keys left in the car,” said prosecutor Carol Shipley. “In the wintertime, people start the car to let it warm up, go in the house, and come out and their car is gone. They have to learn to take some precautions.”
For 2005 the ten metropolitan statistical areas with the highest vehicle theft rates are:
1. Modesto, Calif.
2. Las Vegas/Paradise, Nev.
3. Stockton, Calif.
4. Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, Ariz.
5. Visalia/Porterville, Calif.
6. Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, Wash.
7. Sacramento/Arden-Arcade/Roseville, Calif.
8. San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, Calif.
9. Fresno, Calif.
10. Yakima, Wash.
The rate was determined by the number of vehicle theft offenses per 100,000 inhabitants using the 2004 U.S. Census Population Estimates, the most current figures available.
Source: NCIB with additional reporting by Associated Press.