Who’s stealing cars in Utah? It’s not who you think.

Salt Lake City is No. 4 on a list of cities with the most vehicle thefts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police officers check out the scene where there was an officer involved shooting, while pursuing a stolen car, near 1470 West and North Temple, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

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Lori Nickerson’s outlook on life changed about four months ago. “I’ve become much more insecure. Much less trusting,” she said. “Now, we live in fear.”

Why? Because of what many people may consider a minor crime — her car was stolen.

It’s not the kind of crime that makes headlines. It’s also not a top police priority, even though vehicle theft is a second-degree felony in Utah.

“It is a property crime,” said Sgt. Richelle Bradley, who supervises the auto theft division at the Salt Lake City Police Department. “It’s not the same as an aggravated assault, which is a felony-2 as well.”

But for people whose cars are stolen, it’s No. 1 on their list of crimes that need solving.

“I know that the police are overworked, and I have sympathy for them,” said Nickerson, who lives in Murray. “And I know that, for them, it’s just another day at work. But when it happens to you, it’s traumatic. It changes your life. You just see the world differently.”

For the Nickersons, the thought that somebody would steal their car seemed impossible to believe. The thieves broke into their locked garage, got into their house, stole Lori’s work bag — which contained both her school-issued laptop (she’s a teacher) and her car keys — and drove away in her 2019 Hyundai Kona that had just 17,000 miles on it.

“We immediately called police,” Nickerson said. “It took them an hour and a half to come out ... it just seemed like something minor.”

Compared to other crimes, it is.

Her car was spotted at a gas station and recovered within a couple of days. But Nickerson was left worrying and wondering, and spending a lot of time and money trying to get things back to normal.

“You just wonder … were they going to sell it?” she said. “Were they going to part it out? They gassed up the car in Draper, so I figured they were headed south and we would never see it again.”

It’s not like on TV or in the movies

Car thieves are often depicted as professional criminals on TV or in the movies, using high-tech equipment to steal valuable, late-model cars and either sell them or strip them for parts.

“Car thieves are not sophisticated,” Bradley said. “They’re not like they are in the movies. We rarely see somebody using those electronic devices to hack the key codes.”

Often, it’s a crime of opportunity. Cars are left unlocked. Keys are left in cars. Cars are left running.

There are, however, some notable exceptions. In early December, a Taylorsville man jumped on the hood of his car as a thief tried to drive off with it. He stopped the theft, but damaged his car’s hood in the process.

Also in December, car thieves broke into a Draper dealership and stole four vehicles, driving through a gate and smashing a storefront in the process, police said.

While some speculate that the high rate of stolen cars in the Salt Lake Valley has something to do with how easy it is to hop on I-15 or I-80 and get someplace else quickly, that’s rarely the case. Bradley said that “maybe half a percent” of the cars they recover are found in jurisdictions outside the Salt Lake Valley.

“A few here and there” are recovered in Wendover or Las Vegas, she said, “but mostly they’re found locally — up and down the Wasatch Front.”

Bradley said thieves also aren’t typically stealing vehicles for their value. “They’re stealing it to either get around or to have some place to sleep for the night.” Or, she said, they’re using them to commit other crimes, since recovered vehicles are often found with evidence of other crimes, including other stolen goods, inside.

Marquee Gallivan’s car was stolen in December in Salt Lake City. When police found it eight days later, not only were two people sleeping in the back seat, but inside, officers found drugs, drug paraphernalia, car registrations, license plates, driver licenses, wallets, credit cards, gift cards, keys and suspected burglary tools.

What the data says

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

From 2017 through 2019 (the most recent years available), Salt Lake City was No. 4 on a list of worst cities for stolen vehicles, according to AutoinsuranceEZ.com, with 465 cars stolen per 100,000 residents.

In 2020, there were 7,921 vehicle thefts in Utah, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Overall, there were more vehicles stolen in 2016 (8,423) and 2017 (8,357), but the total value of the vehicles stolen throughout the state in 2020 — $66,545,851 — was the highest on record.

In Salt Lake City alone, there were 2,126 vehicle thefts in 2021 — an average of almost six per day, according to Salt Lake City police.

That was down slightly from 2020, when there were 2,196 vehicle thefts, but well above the five-year average of 1,826.

‘My heart just dropped’

Gallivan, who recently returned to Utah after graduating from Georgia State University in Atlanta, felt safe back in her home state. But she learned a hard lesson.

Five days before Christmas, she ran out to get coffees for her co-workers at a Salt Lake City car dealership. When she returned, the dealership’s parking spaces were full, so she dashed inside with the coffees, leaving her car running. Her 2018 Nissan Altima was gone moments later.

“My heart just dropped,” she said.

The dealership’s surveillance cameras captured a man in a hoodie with a backpack watching Gallivan, then getting into her car and driving away.

She’s not alone. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, more than 200 cars were stolen in Utah in 2020 while they were left running and unattended. More than 600 more were stolen with keys left in vehicles.

In Salt Lake City alone, more than 30 cars have been stolen while idling since November 2021.

Gallivan said she held herself together for a while before “crying and crying and crying.”

“I was so upset,” she said. Later that day, when she watched the surveillance footage herself, “that’s when the actual trauma set in for me.”

“I couldn’t see his face, but to see somebody watching me and then get into my car — I haven’t been the same since seeing the video,” she continued.

She said she couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep after the incident. “I felt so violated. … I’ve had feelings of depression before, and it felt similar to that. Very dark.”

“And,” she added with a laugh, “I just made a car payment the day it was stolen!”

Police recovered her car eight days later. Fortunately, she said, damage was minimal, but it needed some body work and a thorough cleaning.

‘One hassle after the other’

Nickerson’s car was recovered outside a grocery store not too many miles from her home, and the damage also was relatively minor. The antenna was broken off, and some electronic sensors were ripped out. But it’s not like everything was quickly made right.

“It was just one expense after the other and one hassle after the other,” she said. The thief kept her purse and her husband’s wallet, so they had to cancel all their credit cards and replace their driver licenses.

Nickerson said she had to get a police report to prove to her school that her work laptop wasn’t lost. “You have to go there in person to request the report. Then you have to go back in person to pick up the report. And you have to pay for it,” she said.

Just getting back and forth to school for work also proved to be a problem. Her insurance provided for a rental car, but — in the midst of the pandemic — no rental cars were available. Her husband was driving her to and from work, “and then his car broke down, so we didn’t have a back-up car,” Nickerson said.

After her car was recovered, she had to make multiple trips to the dealership. Some of the repair parts were shipped from China, which “took several weeks.” She was on hold for close to an hour on one call to her insurance company alone.

“Our insurance adjuster quit, so she didn’t get back with us,” Nickerson said. “The detective who was assigned to our case quit, so that explains why he didn’t get back with us.”'

Gallivan ran into the same sort of delays, and found it even more difficult to get through to her insurance company in the days leading up to Christmas.

The Nickersons’ garage door also had to be repaired, and they need a new garage door opener. The car thief took keys to the vehicle and the house, so those locks had to be re-keyed. They bought an alarm system for their home.

“So now we live in fear,” she said. She won’t go to the grocery store where her car was found “because I’m afraid that it’s their stomping ground.” She said she fears the thief will see the car and recognize it, or recognize her getting in or out of it.

Gallivan has the same fears. “He has my house keys. My garage door opener,” she said, adding that she felt “so paranoid” that she slept in the living room and put cans in front of her front door to alert her if anyone entered. “It sounds crazy talking about it, but it messes with you so much.”

Stolen ‘love notes’

Victims who get their cars back — damaged or not — often are in for another unpleasant surprise. “Everything that they had in their car at the time it was stolen is now gone,” Bradley said.

That was true for Nickerson, even though she didn’t have anything of much monetary value in her car. She was missing the tassel from her cap when she got her master’s degree. Supplies for her classroom. “And silly things that don’t really matter,” she said.

“My husband writes little love notes to me every morning, and I put them in the console,” she continued. “And they threw all of those away. There were probably a hundred of them.”

For others, such missing property is worth a lot more in tangible terms. Many stolen pickup trucks belong to construction companies and workers, filled with pricey tools and other work equipment.

Even when those trucks are found, the tools are often gone, Bradley said. “And we’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars worth of tools. It’s huge.”

(Photo courtesy of Helper City Police Department) After Helper police chased a truck that was reportedly driving recklessly in Price Canyon on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, officers discovered the Jeep it was hauling had been stolen. Inside the Jeep and the truck, police said they found $20,000 in stolen construction equipment.

Recovery rate

In Salt Lake City, 87% of stolen cars are recovered, Bradley said. Statewide, the recovery rate was 66.3% in 2020, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

“We’ve had everything from tears of joy to ‘Oh crap, I wish that car would’ve been gone so I could get a new car,’” Bradley said with a laugh, “A lot of people are just overwhelmed that we’ve found their car.”

Gallivan said, “You go through two emotions when they find your car. You’re happy that you have it — and you just feel violated.”

Recoveries often come within a couple weeks, Bradley said. Sometimes, it’s just a day or two.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a lot of recovered cars aren’t in good shape.

“You’ve heard that saying — drive it like you stole it. Well, oftentimes it has been driven like it’s been stolen,” Bradley said. “They’re damaged. They’ve been in crashes. The transmissions are jacked up. There’s all sorts of things wrong with the cars.”

One stolen car was recently found submerged in Oquirrh Lake in Daybreak, according to South Jordan police.

(Weber County Sheriff's Office) Search and rescue officials fished a MINI Cooper out of Pineview Reservoir Thursday. The car was reported stolen in Roy in 2017.

Most of the cars require some sort of repair. Making matters worse, when police find a stolen car, they can’t just leave it where it’s found.

“We have to either release it to somebody or impound it,” she said. “And if we can’t get ahold of them, then they get charged with impound fees as well.”

How to protect your car

The best ways to guard against car theft are the simplest: Don’t leave it running unattended. Don’t leave keys in it. Don’t leave it unlocked. And don’t leave items in the car where thieves can see them.

But locking older cars might not be enough. “The older cars are easily started with a shaved key. A screwdriver. A butter knife,” Bradley said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

That’s one reason why older cars — sometimes two and three decades old — are more commonly nabbed, comprising at least 50% to 60% of vehicles stolen, Bradley said.

“The locks are just worn down from being used for so long that it’s easy,” she said. “The best thing to do is go through and change the tumblers on their door locks and their ignition. But that’s expensive.”

Top targets include older-model Hondas and Toyotas, and older-model Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge pickup trucks, Bradley said.

Still, any car can be stolen — as one SLCPD officer discovered on Christmas Eve, when his patrol vehicle was stolen and quickly crashed by the suspected thief.

(Salt Lake City Police Department) A Salt Lake City police car that was stolen and crashed near Foothill Drive and Interstate 80 on Dec. 24, 2021.

Many victims however are those who can least afford to deal with it.

“They don’t have full-coverage insurance,” Bradley said. “They don’t have an extra car to drive. They can’t get to work so it can affect their job. They can’t get their kids to school. So their lives are completely disrupted.”

Aside from keeping vehicles locked, car owners can also install a hidden kill switch that has to be flipped before any of the vehicle’s electrical systems will work. Steering-wheel locks can help too.

“But those things are only as good as the person using them,” Bradley said. “We have recovered cars with the steering-wheel lock on the floor, because the owner forgot to put it on.”

Lingering fears

Until the man suspected of stealing her car was arrested, Gallivan said, “I thought every person in a hat and a backpack was the guy who took my car.”

“You start, like, kind of profiling people,” she said. “You start to get almost paranoid.”

Nickerson expressed the same thoughts: “It just changes how you look at people. It plays with your mind. And then you wonder — are they coming back?”

If your car is found, those feelings don’t suddenly end, they said.

“I’m meeting with a therapist next week, actually,” Gallivan said. “I’m having nightmares.”

“I wonder when a day is going to come when I don’t think about it,” Nickerson said.

— Tribune reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this report.