WSP auto theft unit back in business

SPOKANE, Wash. - After a 15-month hiatus the Washington State Patrol's auto theft unit is back in business with a Wednesday morning raid on a storage area full of stolen vehicles.

During state-wide budget cuts two years ago the Washington State Patrol was forced to take its auto theft detectives and put them back on the road doing the WSP's core mission of traffic safety. Now the legislature has come up with some extra funding and the region's auto theft unit is back in action.

The tip off for Wednesday's raid? If there's one sure fire way to have a bunch of state troopers raid your garage it's to run out of gas while driving around in a stolen vehicle.

Chop Shop bust

"We had contact on I-90 with a vehicle and trailer that were stolen and through our investigation led us to this fifth wheel trailer you see in the backyard that was stolen," WSP Trooper Randy Elkins said.

While there was no way to hide the trailer, stolen from a North Idaho vacation property, troopers said Brenda Sarber and her husband Mark did their level best to stash their other illegal inventory, with a racing bike parked inside their shop and a bulky tarp concealing a classic Chevy Camaro outside. Detectives were looking for more stolen vehicles well into the afternoon Wednesday.

"Multiple vehicles, motorcycles, snowmobiles will all be checked, their VIN numbers will be checked, see what's stolen and go from there," Elkins said.

This was one of the first big busts since the state patrol reactivated its auto theft unit back in November and that's good news for local residents as Spokane's auto theft rate is up 46-percent from this time last year.

"We have very motivated trooper-detectives out there who are going to do their jobs in the auto theft unit and hopefully cut down on auto theft, property theft and everything that stems from it," Elkins said.

What Elkins was referring to was drug addiction, which drives a lot of this area's auto theft problem. People steal vehicles and motorcycles to support their drug habits, so when law enforcement raid locations like the Sarbers' property there are fewer outlets for stolen vehicles.

As if to emphasize the point that drugs were helping fuel the stolen vehicle trade, troopers found methamphetamine during their raid Wednesday.