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A 'target-rich environment': Law enforcement searches for solutions to DIA's growing auto theft problem

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Posted at 8:33 PM, Jul 12, 2023

DENVER — For both Chad Raabe and Nicole Zichterman, trips this month ended on a sour note. They returned to the Denver International Airport (DIA), walked out to its parking lots and found themselves among growing statistics.

“My son and I kind of went up and down the rows. I had my key fob out, hitting the alarm, trying to find it that way. We made it down every row, and then finally decided it’s not there,” Raabe recalled of the moment he realized his truck had been stolen out of the lot. “I wasn’t happy. That truck’s kind of my baby. I mean, I love that truck, and I just couldn’t believe it.”

Zictherman, after a tiring day of flying, did find her Toyota Prius where she had left it. After starting the car and beginning to drive away, however, she quickly realized it was quite different than how she had left it.

“As soon as the car turns to gas mode, it sounds like we put a hemi in it,” Zichterman said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened?’ And then as soon as I get out of the car, I see all the parts underneath it. And immediately, I was like, 'Our catalytic converter’s been stolen.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Both Raabe and Zichterman are now trying to get answers — and in Raabe’s case, be reunited with his truck. Both are calling on DIA to step up security in its lots.

“There’s definitely got to be something different, because what’s going on now isn’t working,” he said. “And it seems like it’s been obvious for a long time that it’s not working."

Denver7 continues to hear from many victims of auto and catalytic converter theft at DIA, with several reaching out about incidents in recent weeks. We followed up with the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority (CATPA) and the Metro Auto Theft Task Force (C-MATT) to find out what current trends are telling us and how authorities are searching for solutions.

DIA, and the surrounding area, are currently exceptions to a positive statewide trend. Data from CATPA shows auto theft statewide is on a downward trend this year, after several years of staggering increases. The area of DIA, however, has seen theft increase by 28 percent this year compared to last year.

“DIA is in an isolated area that we kind of refer to as a target-rich environment,” said Cale Gould, public outreach coordinator for CATPA. “Lots of people travel through DIA. A lot of people leave their cars in the parking lots at DIA. And because of that, you have a large amount of vehicles that it becomes more or less a target-rich environment for thieves to peruse, to track and, you know, choose targeted vehicles.”

Commander John Pickard, director of C-MATT, said the task force has been having many conversations about the problem of auto theft and catalytic converter theft at the airport. Technology, he said, has made entering and leaving the lots “very convenient,” and perhaps too convenient as its ease also enables thieves to make getaways.

The force is now discussing the possible need to sacrifice a bit of convenience in the pursuit of security, such as expecting proof of ownership or permission to drive a car off the lot.

While the task force isn’t sure yet what exactly that would look like, both Raabe and Zichtman said they would gladly spend some extra time in the parking lot next time if it meant their vehicles were secure.

“We’re potentially out of a car for eight months,” Zichterman laughed. “Like, I will gladly wait 10, 15, 30, an hour, to have my car, like, functioning and not have that happen.”

A spokesperson for DIA said the airport is working with the Denver Police Department to increase patrols in its parking lots, which incorporate more than 40,000 public parking spaces. The airport also urges travelers to “take proper steps to secure their vehicle,” and shared the following tips:

• Always lock your car, roll up the windows and take your keys with you.
• Remove valuables or spare keys from your vehicle.
• Never leave the car running unattended, even for a short period of time.
• Park in well-lit and/or busy areas when possible.
• Use an alarm system and/or steering wheel lock device.

Anyone who witnesses suspicious activity within airport parking lots is urged to call 303-342-4211, which is a direct line to DPD onsite at the airport.