Mall Partners with Local Police to Outsmarting Auto Thieves

Mission Viejo Just to be safe, Ross Aimer bought his wife a Volkswagen wagon.

"We're hoping this car isn't attractive to thieves," said Aimer, 62, whose 2007 Chevrolet Silverado was stolen from The Shops at Mission Viejo in November. "We got it because it wouldn't be in demand."

Since January, after a six-month rash of car thefts, the Orange County Sheriff's Department has increased its presence at The Shops of Mission Viejo. One car has been stolen from the mall since then.

Deputies patrol the center and parking structure daily. The department is also in discussions with the mall to pay for future expenses to keep deputies in place.

"We're being as visible as possible and looking for suspicious people," said Lt. Steve Bernardi, chief of police services for Mission Viejo. "We're going to try and outlast them and hope they stop."

Investigators have some leads but no arrests have been made. Undercover investigators from the sheriff's regional traffic bureau and county Auto Theft Taskforce have spent almost 100 hours on surveillance. Patrol and motor deputies have spent several hundred hours at the mall, too.

Since May, almost 30 SUV's have been stolen from the mall. The SUV's -- 2004 to 2006 domestic models ranging in value from $30,000 to more than $60,000 -- were locked. Since January, police have gotten two reports of stolen cars. One case was resolved when the man realized he had parked the car in a different spot. The other car -- a 2000 Honda Civic from an outside lot -- appeared not to be linked to the car theft ring.

"It's gotten below the normal theft rate -- one car since Dec. 17," said Sgt. Fred Furey, who heads the sheriff's regional traffic bureau. "That's pretty good."

Aimer, a retired pilot from San Clemente, said his truck had just 5,000 miles on it. His wife, who works at the mall, discovered it missing when she left her shift at 10 p.m.

"Mall management insists that employees park on the fifth floor of the parking structure," he said. "This creates a smorgasbord for clever car thieves. They know employees don't return to their cars till the end of the night."

A border camera snapped a photo of his truck's plate as it crossed into Mexico at 8 p.m. that night. The truck was never recovered. Aimer's insurance company has settled.

Aimer, mall employees and patrons say they feel a little safer because of the police patrols but say the mall's management could do more.

Tiara Duff, 31, of Irvine works at the mall and sometimes drove her husband's Jeep Commander. When a co-worker lost her Cadillac Escalade to thieves during the holidays, she stopped.

"I won't park in back corners" she said. "I would feel safer with security cameras not only to prevent stolen cars but for customer and employee safety."