When Tim Knight got out of bed to head to work early Monday morning, he didn't know he would make himself the target of a crime.
He left his black 1984 Chevrolet Blazer parked in front of his central Modesto home with the keys in the ignition and the engine running.
Like other Modesto residents, Knight was warming up his engine while he finished getting ready to leave. It's a move that could've made him easy prey for vehicle thieves.
"It takes forever for the engine to warm up," said Knight, 39. "I was just going inside to grab my coffee real quick."
Although it takes a long time to warm up the engine, Modesto police Sgt. Aaron Tait said, it takes only a few seconds for a thief to get inside and drive away.
Tait spotted Knight's unattended Blazer and stopped to tell him how he had made himself vulnerable to theft.
Tait's warning was part of a multiagency public awareness effort carried out early Monday to urge Modestans not to leave their idling vehicles unattended, especially when temperatures drop. By raising awareness, officials hope to reduce Modesto's staggering auto theft rate.
"It's a crime of opportunity," said Tait, a member of the Stani- slaus County Auto Theft Task Force. "We're just trying to get the message out."
A small team of officials from Modesto police, the California Highway Patrol and the countywide task force hit the streets about 6 a.m. to look for idling vehicles left unattended.
Within 90 minutes, the team found 25 such vehicles. Officials stopped each time and gave residents the warning while handing them a brochure with tips for preventing auto thefts.
Police officials say they see an increase in the number of unattended vehicles stolen as the weather turns colder. Idling vehicles are easy for thieves to spot because the exhaust is clearly visible in colder weather. Knight's black Blazer sat parked as white smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe.
Knight didn't know the exhaust smoke was acting as a bull's-eye for thieves.
Neither did Jose Vargas, 29, who left his white Toyota Camry idling in his driveway in northwest Modesto.
"I just came in from outside right now," said Vargas, who was on his way to work. "I just turned it on to defrost the windows."
People can avoid becoming victims by waking up a few minutes earlier and using the extra time to sit in their vehicles as they warm up, Tait said.
John Eakle was warming up the interior of his silver Ford F250 pickup before taking his 2-year-old daughter to day care.
The pickup was parked in front of his central Modesto home with the engine running, but the keys were not in the ignition and the doors were locked. Eakle has a device that starts the engine remotely.
He said the engine would turn off if a thief got in and tried to drive away without using the remote device. Nevertheless, Tait warned him that the idling pickup will entice thieves to break the vehicle's window and possibly steal items inside.
"I'm glad you guys are out here doing this," Eakle said to Tait. "I don't like the fact that there are so many cars stolen in Modesto."
Across the street from Eakle, Lance Lemings, 47, also was warming up his unattended brown Chevrolet pickup with the use of a remote device. The pickup has a diesel engine, Lemings said, and needs a lot of time to warm up.
He had left the engine running while he was inside getting ready to leave for work. Although he feels confident the pickup won't get stolen, he said he'll think twice about leaving it alone with the engine on.
"I don't want them to break my window," Lemings said.
Tait said it won't be long before thieves find a way to get around the remote ignition technology.
"They have it down to science," Tait said of the auto theft suspects he arrests.
One woman told Tait that her unattended green Ford Taurus was relatively safe. She had pulled the car out of her garage and parked it facing the wrong direction along the curb in front of the house and went inside.
She said she appreciated Tait's warning, but she could get to her car in time before a thief could steal it.
What some people might not know is that leaving an idling vehicle unattended could be considered a crime, said Sgt. Brian Findlen, a Modesto police spokesman.
The state Vehicle Code considers leaving a vehicle on a highway without turning off the engine an infraction punishable by a fine. Findlen said Modesto's Municipal Code considers it a misdemeanor to leave an idling vehicle in a public parking lot or on the street.
Officials on Monday, however, were not out to cite residents. They just wanted to warn the public of the risks they're taking just to warm up their vehicles.
"It's very important as we move into the winter months that we make people aware that it only takes a second for your car to disappear from out in front of your house," Findlen said. "A small convenience of stepping into a warm car is not worth the possibility of losing your car."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.