ST. LOUIS — Police found Kenyata Rogers’ stolen Kia Sportage about a month after she reported it stolen last summer from outside her apartment building in the city’s Downtown West neighborhood.
“I saw my car last probably at midnight,” she said. “The next morning, it wasn’t there. I called and made a report, and a month later the police called me to tell me my car was totaled and vandalized and pieces of it were missing, and there was no point even coming to see it.”
Police told her it was found in a resale shop, but they had not arrested anyone for the theft. She hasn’t heard anything on her case since then.
Rogers is one of the thousands of Kia and Hyundai owners in the St. Louis region who walked outside last year to find a pile of glass on the ground and their cars gone. And her case, like most others, was never brought to court.
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Car thieves are especially hard to catch, experts say, because the crime happens quickly, and the stolen car is typically used for only a short period of time. That is especially true when it comes to the exploitable security flaw in many Kia and Hyundai vehicles that has plagued the St. Louis region for more than a year.
St. Louis police received 2,677 reports of stolen vehicles in the city during a three-month peak of car thefts last summer that was fueled by skyrocketing rates of stolen Kias and Hyundais. But only 23 adults were charged with car theft-related crimes during that same span, from June to August, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. St. Louis County saw a similar rate, where 2,123 cars were reported stolen during the three-month surge, and 64 suspects were charged.
Police and prosecutors point to a growing trend of juveniles stealing cars — for the entire year, police turned juveniles over to city or county courts more than 950 times for car theft. It’s unclear how many of those resulted in charges, as most juvenile cases are sealed.
“Cars are often stolen at night when there are few witnesses,” a St. Louis County auto unit spokesperson wrote in an email. “There is also little physical evidence left behind when a vehicle is stolen.”
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell added in a written statement that prosecutors need clear surveillance footage, phone data or DNA evidence linking the suspect to the theft. When a thief touches the surfaces in the car, Bell said, it often does not leave behind DNA.
The types of car thefts that led to charges during the three-month surge were myriad. In some, a family member or a friend took a vehicle without permission. In others, license plate readers alerted police to the theft when the plate was not immediately removed. And in one, a man fell asleep for hours inside a stolen car that was parked at a gas pump.
But far less common are charges related to the types of cases that drove the car theft surge over the past year.
Rates of stolen Kias and Hyundais exploded in the region last year — a trend also seen nationally because of a viral TikTok video that shows how to break into and drive off in many 2011-21 models of the South Korean-made vehicles using just a screwdriver and a USB charging cable. The method can be used on some models of those cars because manufacturers did not install engine immobilizers, an electric anti-theft security device.
The number of Kias and Hyundais stolen in the city in 2022 (3,958) surpassed the number of all cars stolen in 2021 (3,874). In all, 7,393 cars were reported stolen in 2022 in the city, a 91% increase from the previous year.
And as theft rates persisted, Progressive and State Farm late last year began declining to open new policies on Kias and Hyundais altogether in some parts of the U.S., including the St. Louis region, while drivers with existing plans were stuck paying increasingly high premiums.
Then the city on Monday followed other municipalities across the country and filed suit against Hyundai and Kia in federal court over the defect — something they first threatened to do last fall.
“St. Louisans should not be forced to bear the cost of their negligence,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said last week at a press conference.
St. Louis criminologist Rick Rosenfeld said his data in a recent study shows an uptick in car thefts across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, which bucked the previous years’ declining trend. But he said the surge in Kia and Hyundai thefts is only part of the issue.
“The problem is much broader than simply defects in a couple of vehicles,” said Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The days in which motor vehicle thefts are committed for joy rides appear to be pretty much over, and the days when lots of car thefts were committed to break them down and sell the parts, that’s not happening either. These days, the majority of these thefts are used to commit another crimes.”
One of the primary hurdles to prosecuting car theft cases is that suspects are getting increasingly younger, said Bell. The St. Louis County auto unit spokesperson shared that observation, noting that most thefts in the county involve juvenile suspects.
Bell said his office believes criminal groups take the deliberate strategy of using juveniles as the driver, or “wheel man,” of stolen vehicles.
“Car theft rings all know that juvenile offenders are sent to juvenile court, where they expect more lenient treatment than in circuit court. Our office never sees juvenile offenders unless we get them certified as an adult,” Bell said.
Judge Steven R. Ohmer, who oversees the city’s juvenile court, told the Post-Dispatch in February the court generally files multiple charges daily, but the program’s goal is to divert and rehabilitate the youth, not charge them.
“The increase in car incidents — driving stolen cars, tampering, assaults — the court has been proactive with that,” Judge Steven R. Ohmer said. “We try to do what we can. Each case is different.”
Last year, police referred youths to juvenile court for car theft 387 times; in 2021, that number was 180. The same trend was seen in the county, where juvenile referrals for car theft referrals jumped from 338 in 2021 to 576 last year.
Chief Juvenile Officer Amanda Sodomka said the vast majority of all referrals end in diversion, where informal services are offered, equating to about an 85% diversion rate.
“We want to hold them accountable for their actions, but youth are youth,” she said in February.
Bell said his office has to focus first on prosecuting the violent crimes that plague the region, but noted that car theft is “on the violent end of property crimes” because, as others noted, those stolen cars are often used in other crimes.
St. Louis police cited drive-by shootings and reckless driving as common crimes that happen after someone steals a car. They pointed to several high-profile cases over the past year, including a hit-and-run involving a stolen Kia that killed a bicyclist on South Grand Boulevard last September, and a midday shootout one month earlier between a stolen Kia and a stolen Hyundai near a busy intersection downtown.
“The huge spike in Kia and Hyundai thefts makes the job of SLMPD much more difficult, siphoning resources that could be devoted to other law enforcement priorities,” a police spokesperson said in a written statement.
The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office said it receives a small percentage of cases related to motor vehicle theft from the police department and acknowledged the challenges officers face in identifying suspects in these cases.
“This is a complex situation and we are working closely with the police and the community to help address this crisis,” a spokesperson wrote in a written statement.
Despite facing lawsuits from municipalities across the country, Kia and Hyundai insist they are not responsible for ballooning theft rates of their vehicles. Still, they’ve begun providing a free software upgrade that negates the security flaw in some models.
The city’s lawsuit says that for decades the security device has been an industry standard and cited a study from the Netherlands that showed engine immobilizers lowered “the overall rate of car theft on average by about 40% during 1995-2008.” It also cites another study, conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute, that showed a decrease in theft between 1996 and 2013 in vehicles with factory-installed engine immobilizers.
Several police departments across the region have formed task forces that focus specifically on auto theft enforcement.
But for Rogers, whose Kia was stolen in June, recent enforcement and accountability efforts have done little to dull the sting. The insurance on her Kia had lapsed when it was stolen, and she now owes about $15,000 for a car that no longer exists. She has since moved to north St. Louis County, leaving behind the almost daily car break-ins outside her Downtown West apartment building.
After her Kia was stolen, Rogers received a car as a gift from her church. But then her bad luck continued.
“Just recently somebody hit this car while it was parked outside in the same area my Kia got stolen,” she said, noting she now needs to pay to fix that damage.
And in the meantime, there is no sign that the wave of stolen cars is likely to stop. In the first two months of 2023 in St. Louis, auto thefts were twice what the city saw during the same period last year.