In stark black and white, the thieves caught on the home surveillance camera carefully case the cars in the driveway, open the unlocked door and remove both halves of the skeleton — broken at the hip bone — from the backseat before heading on down the road.
“One of the other cameras on the house showed them walking up the road looking into the parked cars and trying the doors, just looking for what they could find,” said Doug Lawson, the Charlottesville man whose decorative skeleton was pilfered.
What they found was the plastic Halloween decoration that Lawson kept sitting in the backseat of his car to amuse other drivers and pedestrians.
“They came up the driveway and looked in the cars and the video shows them going through them. They then took the skeleton out of the backseat and took it with them,” he said. “They made sure to get both halves, so at least they kept him together.”
Lawson’s lost skeleton, while unique, is part of a recent uptick area police have seen in larcenies from vehicles. That, police say, could worsen as the holiday shopping season approaches.
“It seems cyclical in nature,” said Officer Joe George, crime prevention specialist with the Albemarle County Police Department. “We saw a 15% decline in larcenies from vehicles between 2017 and 2018, but we’re on track to see a 6% increase this year. And the holiday season usually sees an increase.”
Charlottesville police have responded to more than two dozen larceny reports from vehicles in the past few weeks, said Tyler Hawn, city police spokesman.
“It’s been citywide, but Belmont and Johnson Village have seen the most recently,” Hawn said. “We’ve had dozens of reports and they’ve been from all over of the city.”
Others have reported similar break-ins or thefts in the Locust Grove, Woolen Mills and Fry’s Spring neighborhoods with thefts of sunglasses — including prescription ones — pocket electronics and even a firearm.
Lawson said he installed the video cameras so that they were easily seen. He also installed motion-sensor lighting that turns on the porch light when people approach. Both potential deterrents worked that night without the desired effect.
“It’s a very clear video and the motion-sensor lights seemed to help them to better see what was in the car,” Lawson laughed. “In a way, it’s funny because nothing of real value was taken. I don’t keep valuables in the car, but I really should have locked the car doors.”
Hawn and George agree on the best way to thwart thieves.
“The best way to prevent it is to lock your car doors and take your valuables in the house. Don’t leave cellphones in the center console or under the seat,” Hawn said. “It’s a crime of opportunity. If your car is not locked, they may decide to go through it and see what they can find. If there’s something on the seat that they can see, they may go for it.”
According to a study conducted by Allstate Insurance, thieves are likely to target a vehicle in which they can see a phone, purse or wallet, laptop or computer case, briefcase, backpack, shopping bags, electronics, compact discs, cash and loose change or keys.
Some studies in larger cities also found that unlocked car doors were inviting to people who stayed in the cars overnight, especially during the winter. Some local residents reported on social media that strangers had spent the night in their unlocked cars — sleeping, eating, reading and even charging electronic devices.
George said he’s heard some residents say that they thought police recommended leaving doors unlocked to prevent smashed vehicle windows. That, he said, has not been county policy.
“That’s never been something Albemarle County recommends,” George said. “Our statistics show that more than 90% of larcenies from a vehicle involve unlocked doors and less than 10% involve breaking a window.”
George said the two crimes, while similar, have totally different methods of operation.
“You have people walking up a street trying to open car doors just to see what they can get,” George said. “With smash-and-grabs, it’s usually in a parking lot and they’ll bust out the windows of several cars in the parking lot.”
George also recommended covering valuables with blankets so they are not visible to peering eyes, or locking them in the trunk.
“Even better, leave your valuables at home and take them inside at night. Most cars have remote entry into trunks,” he said. “And never leave a firearm in a vehicle.”