There’s a crime wave happening on the Big Island — or at least on its Facebook pages such as BigIslandThieves, which has more than 30,000 members, and on community pages such VolcanoAloha and HPP Next Door.

Their readers get a daily flood of police reports and eyewitness accounts about car thefts, robberies and burglaries.  On one recent weekend, residents posted at least five reports about stolen vehicles.

“I think we all need to stop leaving purses, wallets, computers, house keys, and ANY personal items in our cars over night. … The car thefts are awful!” suggested one resident.

But is the picture on social media accurate?

“I think what’s happening is the public is getting to see what police and prosecutors see all the time,”  Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth told Civil Beat.

The crimes are real, and their impact on those affected can be devastating. But crime statistics, eyewitness reports and sources in the Hawaii Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office often contradict common assumptions on social media about those crimes.

There’s definitely a big problem — especially with car theft. But it’s not burgeoning.

Many thefts are often related to drugs, but not all; organized theft rings that recruit juvenile thieves, as frequently conjectured on the social media sites, get replaced in real life by small groups of 20- or 30-somethings. And an uncaring justice system gets replaced by a badly over-strained one, in which only four Circuit Court Judges deal with tens of thousands of cases annually, prosecutors put in unpaid overtime and maxed-out prisons must release prisoners in order to accommodate more.

According to Police Lt. Miles Chong, who heads the Criminal Investigations Section of Hawaii County Area One (Hamakua-Hilo-Puna), the number of burglary and robbery incidents island-wide actually declined in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the most recent for which statistics are available. Car thefts were up, but only after declining the year before.

“We don’t have anything substantial to indicate that there’s a structured criminal organization involved in these crimes.” Chong said. “Offenders just associate themselves with a few acquaintances or family members.”

Mitch Roth estimated that the number of individuals perpetrating the current spike in vehicle thefts was relatively low — perhaps as few as 55 suspects.  Of those, he said, several were already in custody and arrest warrants had been written for others.

Online commenters almost routinely assume that thefts are drug-related; comment threads on Big Island Thieves are frequently laced with “damned tweakers,” “meth heads,” and similar epithets.

But Chong noted that while some cars are stripped for parts, “A lot of time they’re just run to the ground and abandoned….We suspect they’re just taking them for a joy ride.”

If the motivation is something besides money for drugs—thrill-seeking or sadomasochism, for instance—then jail time, or even addiction treatment, is not going to solve the problem.

Mich Roth, Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney

Roth suggests another underlying factor: “Kids coming from homes with domestic violence are 50 percent more likely to use drugs. Domestic violence is probably the biggest root issue in crime that we have.”

Victim and witness accounts suggest that police responses weren’t always optimal, and also suggest some common patterns in these crimes: a culture of criminality, if not an organization.

Thieves often crudely spray-paint the stolen vehicles. The perpetrators often seem bold to the point of recklessness, as if challenging the system: vehicles disappear from driveways and in front of businesses, perpetrators sometimes wave at witnesses or cameras.

Frequently, stolen vehicles are used in other crimes, especially burglaries.

Melissa Fletcher saw all these behaviors. The Volcano businesswoman posted that men in a spray-painted truck had cruised slowly by her house, raided a neighbor’s garage and then flipped her the finger as they drove past her again.

Fletcher told Civil Beat she’d personally had a truck stolen last year. Her business office has been burglarized twice, a storage container was ransacked and a gate was stolen.

She got her truck back after a neighbor found it in guava thicket on Ihope Road,  a remote area between Hilo and Volcano.

When Melissa Fletcher’s truck was recovered after being stolen, it had been painted gray, and the rear bumper, battery and camper shell were missing.

“There were literally HUNDREDS of vehicles there, most without plates, many spray-painted just like our truck was, with bumpers removed just like our truck. Police told me when I asked that they couldn’t run VIN numbers or see if any of those were stolen….. They said it wasn’t allowed by their ‘uppers’ in the department.  There was more than enough probable cause, I guarantee it.”

She said that after she reported what she’d seen on online, “I got a few death threats.”

Deborah Ward also posted on Facebook after her truck was stolen from her driveway.  Seven hours after filing her police report, she told Civil Beat, “Police started wandering around my house looking at everything.  I asked them what was going on.  They said a truck with my license plates was running around Orchidland (a Big Island subdivision) stealing gas cans.”

Ward said the officers showed her no warrant when they searched her property.  She told them she’d reported the truck stolen, but “they said it wasn’t in their database.” They left after she gave them the number of the stolen vehicle report and the reporting officer’s name.

The thieves eventually crashed Ward’s truck into a power pole and abandoned it. Like Fletcher’s, it had been crudely repainted.  Gang-type graffiti adorned the dashboard. Police arrested 21-year-old Keanu Krause for the theft, as well as that of a County utility truck that may have been used to tow Ward’s truck out of her driveway.

“They asked me if I’d be willing to testify against him and I agreed, even though I knew it was risky,” Ward said. But after Krause was arraigned, a paperwork glitch caused him to be released accidentally. Though he was quickly re-arrested, she says, her experience hadn’t bolstered her confidence in the police.

Both Fletcher and Ward lost thousands of dollars because of the thieves.  The insurance company totaled Ward’s truck, for instance, but offered her only $2,800 for it, though the County assessed it at $6800 when it charged Krause. But monetary losses were only the beginning; there was also trauma and a sense of personal violation.

On July 9, the Hawaii Police Department formed a special task force to tackle the stolen car problem.       Within four days, it announced its first success: The arrests and charging of Christian Olivera, 19, and Jasmine Saragosa-Tacy, 24.
 Olivera, whose bail was set  at $600,000 has been charged with 13 counts of possessing a stolen vehicle and several other charges including resisting an order to stop and terroristic threatening. Saragosa-Taoy, whose bail was set at $115,000, was charged with hindering prosecution, credit card theft, unauthorized possession of confidential personal information and other offense. 

Shared Frustrations

All that emotion often gets turned back on police and prosecutors.

When one alleged thief was sought for questioning after a shooting left a woman with bullet in her neck, for instance, Big Island Thieves commenters erupted in anger that he was out on bail.

“The blood of his victim is on Mitch Roth’s hands!”  one declared.

Roth understands the concerns that drives some of those comments.

“I like things like the Big Island Thieves and I hate things like the Big Island Thieves. In the long run, I think there’s more positive than negative,” Roth said. “On the negative side, sometimes people don’t know what they’re talking about and sometimes they leap to conclusions.”

But his office has also gleaned useful information from the site. And it makes him aware of critical comments about his office and the police that some participants make. He’s invited some of the critics in to talk, and as a result, “we’ve had some people who used to be against us, who have turned around.”

Roth told Civil Beat, “I think a lot of people are rightly frustrated. We’re frustrated.”

He pointed out that bail sentences were determined by the judge and that even when an offender was sentenced, a parole board often determined the fraction of the sentence that got served behind bars—and all those factors were influenced not just by justice, but by logistics.  The prisons, he noted, were full: “Every time we put someone in [prison] we’re kicking someone out.”

There was also a long wait for drug treatment, he said, and without it addicts were “set up for failure.”

In fact, the entire system is clogged to the breaking point, forcing his deputies to plea-bargain most cases. His office processes about 20,000 criminal cases annually, from traffic arrests to murder.  “We have four circuit court judges,” he pointed out.

Oahu, he noted, had motions judges and trial judges, but the four judges here handled everything but juvenile court—even civil cases.

“We are never going to arrest our way out this this situation, and we’re never going to solve our problems just by locking people up,” he said.

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