Michael Kolodziej is an expert at recovering stolen cars and arresting the people who steal them.
Kolodziej, 45, has been a California Highway Patrol officer for 24 years, nine of them in Merced. He is one of 16 law enforcement officers honored for their efforts in battling auto theft, with 10851 Awards given by the California State Automobile Association. The 10851 Award is named after the state Vehicle Code section for auto theft.
"It's just part of the deal working road patrol. An occupied stolen is always kind of fun. But I love helping people get off the road when they break down; that's the greatest satisfaction," Kolodziej said. Between August and January 2006 he recovered 37 stolen vehicles and made six auto theft arrests.
Sometimes encountering a car thief means a chase. Kolodziej said these thieves eventually stop and fortunately those he has chased haven't wrecked in the process.
CSAA representative Tony Corroo said his company has partnered with the CHP on the auto theft awards since 1984. The average cost to the insurance company when a stolen vehicle is recovered is $4,000; when the cars aren't found it costs an average of $7,000 per car.
"This is a great savings to our insureds and the public. We are paying out less money on behalf of our members, and I congratulate all of you. The money is great, but when a car is stolen, they're violated. We're saving peace of mind and have an ending to that episode," Corroo told officers at the 10851 awards ceremony.
Shane Kensey recovered 36 stolen cars and trucks between April 2001 and July 2005 and made 12 auto theft arrests. A former Merced officer, he has been with the CHP for nine years and now is assigned to the patrol's Fresno division office.
Kensey concedes some of his auto theft pursuits ended in crashes which isn't unusual in these cases. He said auto theft investigation is one of his niches; he has won four 10851 Awards.
With winter months coming on, Kensey has a tip to keep people from losing their cars: Never warm up your car in the driveway. Thieves drive through neighborhoods looking for the steam from car exhaust, jump into the idling car and drive off.
CHP Officer Ron Gonzales has been with the patrol for 19 years and assigned to the local office for 12 years. He has recovered 43 stolen cars, arrested 13 car thieves and won 22 CSAA awards.
Gonzales said he knows where stolen cars are most often abandoned and where they are taken. In this area that is South Merced, Winton, Atwater and Delhi areas.
When Gonzales takes a stolen car report from the owner, he said he tries to reassure the person his or her vehicle will be found. But he's not sure what condition the vehicle will be in when it's located.
Technology, such as LoJack and OnStar, is very helpful in recovering stolen autos. When he encounters stolen cars on the road, Gonzales tries to keep the occupants inside the vehicle until backup arrives because in nine out of 10 cases, those people want to run away.
Merced County Sheriff's Department Deputy Randy Taylor has made 10 stolen vehicle recoveries and arrested one auto theft suspect. He also took down a chop shop in Dos Palos in the summer of 2005, making five arrests and recovering two vehicles that had not been parted out and three more that had been dismantled.
Taylor said encountering someone in a stolen car can be dangerous. Most times the thief will "park and run," which usually means a foot chase.
"It depends upon how stupid they are," Taylor said.
Sgt. Rene Mendoza has been with the Atwater Police Department for 28 years. He has made eight auto theft arrests and has always liked working those cases. He said for a while many stolen cars were taken out to the county, stripped and burned.
Chief Scott MacGregor of the CHP's Central Division in Fresno said vehicle theft is one of the costliest property crimes in the United States. In the past two years, 376 stolen vehicles have been recovered in the area with an estimated value of $2.1 million.
Kolodziej said one of the latest stolen vehicle cases he worked involved a Kubota farm tractor. The thief reported he "found" the tractor and supposed one of his family members left it for him like they usually did.
"This guy was a brick shy," Kolodziej grinned.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.