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ABC 57 Investigates rising car thefts in South Bend and St. Joe County

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A growing crime trend across the country is having a large impact in Michiana. While the number of stolen cars has increased by about 5 percent nationally, the number has nearly doubled in the South Bend-Mishawaka area, according to statistics provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

On average, 2 to 3 cars are stolen every day in St. Joseph County. However, if you live in the city of South Bend, numbers show the chances of having your car stolen double.

"He was punching me in the top of my head and face. He was kicking me. It just was a horrible situation." Chris Putnam, who was violently carjacked about two weeks ago, said. "It's just something that should have never happened."

Putnam was sitting in her car outside of her work at the South Bend Medical Foundation in downtown South Bend, when two young men approached. It was about 6:00 in the morning. The men were wearing hoodies covering their heads, but it was cold. She says one of the thieves asked to use her phone. When the other thief walked around to the passenger side of her car, she quickly realized they weren’t interested in making a call.

"They told me then that they didn't want my phone, they were taking my car." She said.

Chris tried to fight them off. She put herself between one of the attackers and her car. She says the men kicked her, punched her and slammed her head into the ground.

"I was screaming for help. (I was) Hoping someone would come. No cars drove by. Nothing." She recalled.

The thieves were able to overpower her and steal her car. Bleeding from the head, Putnam tried to call for help.

"I kept dialing 877 instead of 911." She said, but blood in her eyes and on her phone made the simple task impossible.

Eventually a co-worker found her and helped.

While an attack like the one Putnam endured is extreme, the end result is more common than you might think.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, car thefts in the South Bend - Mishawaka area have been growing steadily over the past several years. In 2013, the area was ranked 158th out of about 340. In 2016, it jumped 60 spots to 98th.

"There's been a very dramatic increase in the number of thefts in the South Bend area." Roger Morris, spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said.

Morris says the number of stolen cars jumped from 535 to 907 in a three year period. According to NICB numbers, based on population, there’s about a 1 in 500 chance of someone having their car stolen in St. Joseph County as a whole.

ABC57’s request for stats of car thefts and carjackings from the South Bend Police Department was denied. However, according to an online crime map that city employees pointed us to, there were 207 car thefts in the city in a 6-month period. Based on the population and the limited stats, there’s about a 1 in 250 chance of someone having their car stolen in the city. Twice as high as the as the county as a whole. It is important to note, the crime map is not always complete.

"The most common problem is people not locking their cars." Morris said.

"I went to the parking lot and I seen my car was missing." Deijah Macon, who left her purse and keys in her car last week, said.

Macon’s car was also stolen in downtown South Bend, just blocks from where Putnam was carjacked. Macon says she was at work at the new Marriot Hotel. She parked her car near the South Bend Chocolate Café. Macon says surveillance footage from the hotel captured the thief.

"He took my car at 8:13 (in the evening). I seen my car pull off. You can see the guy actually checking every car in the parking lot." She said.

It’s still not clear why there’s such an increase in thefts in the area. There has been a small increase nationally, which could be attributed to the increase in cars on the road.

Morris believes money is more than likely a leading contributor to the national increase as well. Cars as a whole and their parts are getting more and more expensive.

"So it's a very profitable business for organized criminals in particular and this a very sophisticated business, car thefts today." Morris explained.

It turns out Putnam’s car was used to travel the state. It was found in Indianapolis earlier this week.

Along with stolen cars, there’s also a large number of stolen license plates in the city of South Bend. There have been more than 60 cases so far this year, according to SBPD spokesperson, Ken Garcia. However, he says, as a civilian, he was not able to check further back in records. Our request for those records was also denied.

Morris says there may be a link to stolen cars and stolen plates, but the data isn’t readily available. He says car thieves are known to use stolen plates to help cover their tracks.

Below is the response from City Attorney Aladean DeRose denying our public records request for crime statistics:

“Dear Mr. French:

I am in receipt of your public records request dated March 30, 2018, requesting three different reports for the year beginning March 30, 2017 and ending March 30, 2018. The reports you requested were for (1) auto thefts, (2) carjackings, and (3) license plate thefts.

The Indiana Access to Public Records Act does not require a public agency to answer questions or to create a document or record. The City does not have software programs that provide the information you seek without creating a new record. The City has no specific carjacking report or license plate theft report. Because the City has no documents to produce, your request is denied.”

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