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Friday, October 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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136 stolen cars, 1 suspect: "He enjoyed driving"

Seattle Times staff reporter

He had fun, fun, fun — until the police took his screwdriver away.

Until that happened, Seattle police say, 23-year-old Liam Moynihan had been on a one-man crime wave, stealing more cars than anyone in King County history. Armed with only a screwdriver and hammer, they say, he jimmied his way into at least 136 vehicles during a six-month joyride of epic proportions.

From last November until his arrest in May, Moynihan allegedly stole enough cars to stock a good-sized dealership, averaging one theft every 32 hours.

And he didn't discriminate. While favoring Subarus and Hondas, Moynihan allegedly heisted minivans and pickups, station wagons and SUVs, sedans and coupes. Foreign and domestic. Old and new.

And unlike many car thieves, Moynihan didn't sell the stolen cars for parts, say detectives in Seattle's Major Crimes Task Force, which investigates car thefts. Instead, they say, Moynihan simply liked to drive, often taking a stolen car out for a spin for a few hours, sometimes until the gas tank ran dry, and then stealing another.

"He'd just drive around, deciding to go to Kenmore or Tukwila one day. He needed to get from Point A to Point B — he enjoyed driving," said the undercover detective who investigated the case. Police have requested the detective not be identified because of ongoing undercover work.

Moynihan would sometimes drive 200 miles a day, they said. Police say he had no job but did have a girlfriend he liked to keep entertained, apparently by stealing cars.

"He was a nice kid, very forthright, intelligent. But he knew how to do this certain thing, and he was good at it," the detective said.

Many of the cars were either stolen or recovered in the Ballard-Crown Hill area of Seattle, near where Moynihan lives. In some cases, the cars were recovered just blocks from where they were stolen.

Moynihan was charged Thursday in King County Superior Court with 25 counts of first-degree theft. Police think he actually stole 153 vehicles during that six-month period, and many more in his lifetime.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said he planned to send a message to other car thieves by pursuing an exceptional sentence of 10 years for Moynihan. The maximum sentence range for the charges would normally be 3 ½ to 5 years. A jury would have to agree that the crime had aggravating factors to award the higher sentence.

"This is a very unusual case," Maleng said. Though not usually a violent crime, car theft is one of the issues people in Seattle are most concerned about, he said.

Even for a region like Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, which ranked as the sixth-worst urban area in the U.S. for car theft in 2005, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, police say Moynihan's spree is breathtaking in its scope.

Moynihan has a lengthy criminal history stretching back to his juvenile years, including charges of assault, residential burglary, possession of stolen property and malicious mischief.

In September 2005 he pleaded guilty to first-degree possession of stolen property for stealing a 2000 Ford Escort and was sentenced to two months in jail and financial restitution.

He was arrested again in May after police say he stole a green 1995 Plymouth Voyager from a Crown Hill home and, when they tried to pull him over, bailed out of the moving vehicle, leaving the car to coast on its own into an intersection. By then, Moynihan had made Seattle's Top 10 police list of suspected car thieves.

While in jail, a detective approached him and encouraged him to talk about the details of his escapades.

Amazingly, Moynihan remembered minute details about his thefts, police say, taking them on several "field trips" throughout the city and pointing out places where he had stolen, attempted to steal, or dumped already-stolen cars.

"It was mind-boggling that a person had that type of memory," the detective said. "He was bothered by what he'd done, but he didn't think there was any way out."

In the ensuing months, police investigated. According to the charging papers, Moynihan used a screwdriver and hammer to pry open the windows of cars and, once inside, get into the steering columns and break the ignition locks. He then used the screwdriver to start the engines.

He was most comfortable with Subarus and Hondas "because he knew them inside out," the lead detective said.

Cory Thal, the owner of C&J Auto Body Sales, reported a 1991 Plymouth Voyager stolen from his lot, a theft police blame on Moynihan. Over the years, he said, dozens of vehicles have been stolen from his two Lake City Way locations.

"But as far as I know, this is the only person to ever get caught," Thal said.

Trina McKinstry's 2002 Chrysler Sebring was stolen in March from her carport on 15th Avenue Northeast and found the next day.

"I was delighted when the Seattle police called me to tell me [the thief] had been caught," she said. "I'm not in love with my car, but some people are and I'm pleased it worked out as it did."

Moynihan is being held in jail in lieu of $150,000 bail and is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.

Despite what police and prosecutors say is a successful arrest in this case and a drop in thefts throughout the county — a 26 percent decrease from January to September of this year compared with the same period in 2005 — car thefts are still a major problem for Seattle and surrounding areas, they say.

"It's still far too many for a city of our size," said City Attorney Tom Carr, who last year led a pilot project to increase jail time for car thieves.

The city has about 600 gross-misdemeanor car-theft cases a month, down from a previous average of 900, he said. In the past 12 months, the number of auto thieves prosecuted has increased 28 percent, according to the county prosecutor's office.

Part of the problem is sentencing restrictions, said Maleng. State sentencing guidelines only allow for prison sentences of over a year for thieves who have seven or more convictions. Maleng wants to see a three-strikes-you're-out approach instead.

Even if Moynihan is found guilty and sentenced to 10 years, he is eligible to have half that time shaved off for good behavior. "Those laws need to be reformed," Maleng said.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704

or nsinger@seattletimes.com

Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Information in this article, originally published October 6, was corrected October 6. In the original version, an incorrect name was given for C & J Auto Sales on Lake City Way. Also, an accompanying tip box containing information from the Seattle Police Department's Web site on avoiding auto theft incorrectly recommendeds drivers not leave their registration inside their vehicles. Police now say the information was incorrect and that drivers should always keep their registration inside their vehicle. In addition, in an accompanying chart, the percentage of stolen vehicles recovered by police was transposed. Eighty-six percent of stolen vehicles are recovered.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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