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Tuesday, April 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Car sting yields 5 alleged prowlers; Bellevue police link men to 50 cases

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Looking for more creative ways to deal with the region's most prevalent crime, the Bellevue Police Department planted a "bait car" at Factoria Cinemas over the weekend and stung five car prowlers.

The operation uncovered a small jackpot. The five suspects arrested - ranging in age from 18 to 30 - worked together and are responsible for about 50 unsolved car prowls in Bellevue, according to Marcia Harnden, police spokeswoman.

A search of a suspect's apartment turned up $25,000 worth of stolen merchandise.

Four of the men live in Federal Way. The other lives in Kent. All are expected to be charged this week.

According to police, car prowling is prevalent because it's a low-risk crime with easy targets.

The men arrested in Bellevue said their large stash - car stereos, sporting equipment, cell phones, CDs and firearms, among other things - came almost exclusively from movie-theater parking lots in Factoria and Crossroads, Harnden said.

In fact, the bait car was parked directly under a street lamp, with a dummy purse in full view.

"We made the car look attractive, but not any more so than the average car looks," Harnden said. "Car prowling is an opportunist crime. So if you have something valuable, leave it at home or take it with you."

According to Eastside police statistics, about 90 percent of car prowlers are never caught. In Seattle, where police generally face more pressing calls than in the quieter suburbs, police acknowledge they arrest only about 1 percent of car prowlers.

Harnden said offenders are convicted of car prowling about seven times before they face even the possibility of jail time. Given overtaxed police forces and clogged courtrooms and jails, that's not likely to change, police say.

Statewide, about 59,000 car prowls are reported each year, costing victims an estimated $30 million, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Almost half of those occur in King County.

There are about 70 prowls a day in King County, about half in Seattle. Car owners on the Eastside and Snohomish County each report about a dozen break-ins a day.

It's so common that some victims don't even bother reporting their losses. Despite that grim picture, Harnden said the occasional stings will continue as part of the department's proactive policing effort.

Michael Ko can be reached at 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.

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