Spate of auto theft on the rise in NSP

North St. Paul police plan to start using their new license plate reader this spring, after the Legislature provides some guidance on data retention. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
North St. Paul police plan to start using their new license plate reader this spring, after the Legislature provides some guidance on data retention. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)

On a cold winter morning, Jan. 4, a person walking down Margaret Street approached an unattended, running vehicle in the North St. Paul City Hall parking lot, hopped in and drove off.

City surveillance cameras captured the incident, but it took police about a week to recover the vehicle, which had been abandoned in Minneapolis with an estimated $6,000 worth of damage to the exterior.

“Vehicles aren’t even safe in the City Hall parking lot,” North St. Paul police captain Dustin Nikituk says.

Nikituk and the rest of the officers have been working to address an uptick in auto thefts that began when temperatures dropped back in November. Since then, they have recorded 14 auto thefts within city limits at gas pumps, in driveways and other locations. In some instances, owners left keys in the ignition to keep the heater running.

“We’ve asked our residents not to do that,” Police Chief Tom Lauth announced at the Jan. 20 city council meeting. “For the convenience of a warm vehicle, I don’t know that it’s worth it.”

The city’s ordinance against leaving keys in the ignition of an unattended vehicle, he says, exists for this very reason — to prevent this crime of opportunity. He suggests investing in a remote starter, if residents are so desperate to avoid a cold commute.

Theft driven by cold weather

In many cases, this desire to travel in comfort seems to be driving suspects’ motives as well, Nikituk says.

“They don’t have a car and they’re driving [the stolen cars] around doing day-to-day activities,” he says.

Rather than attempting to sell the vehicles, Nikituk says, suspects seem to have been driving them around town on similar errands to what the owners intended. The vehicles are abandoned once the thieves get to their destinations, or once the gas gauges hit empty.

Thanks to this pattern, police have been able to recover a number of missing vehicles. In the past three months, North St. Paul police have recovered eight stolen vehicles that were abandoned within the city’s limits. Likewise, records show that area police have helped recover 10 of the 14 vehicles that had been stolen out of North St. Paul. Police located half of these recovered vehicles in St. Paul. They found the other five in Forest Lake, Vadnais Heights, St. Anthony and Minneapolis.

“It begs that they’re connected somehow,” says Lauth, noting that in many instances, suspects dumped one stolen vehicle within a couple blocks of their next target.

While it may sound like auto thieves aren’t too concerned about covering their tracks, catching them requires a fair amount of diligence and cooperation among police forces. Officers on patrol are responsible for identifying and manually entering license plate numbers into their computer to verify whether they’ve correctly identified a stolen vehicle.

In North St. Paul, Nikituk says it typically takes police two to five days to recover a stolen vehicle, and about 90 percent are, in fact, recovered.  

“We are developing patterns of the motor vehicle thefts,” he says. “We have some suspected areas of where these vehicles are being dropped off at. We are working on tying the drop-off locations to possible suspects.”

Extra set of eyes

Participating in a county-led initiative to crack down on auto theft, the North St. Paul police force has purchased a license plate reader with more than $15,000 in grant funds from the state’s auto-theft prevention program. While the two-part scanner is already mounted on the back of a squad car, Nikituk says they’re waiting on a bill for data retention that’s currently under review in the Minnesota Legislature.

Once approved, the new license plate reader will allow city police to read numerous license plates as the squad car drives down the road, which will increase the volume of data checks they’re able to run on vehicles to identify which ones have been filed as stolen.

While Nikituk says the new reader won’t be used to pull information on a person’s driving history, it will also assist officers in identifying drivers with a suspended or revoked license.

“What the [license plate reader] really helps us with is vehicles that the officers are not familiar with — ones from out of town,” Nikituk says.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and Follow her at

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