ST. LOUIS — Angela Swyers was getting ready to open her bakery in Soulard. She frequently gives food to homeless men in the neighborhood, and on this morning, one of the men gave her some bad news.
The window on the passenger side of her truck had been smashed.
She went outside that late January morning and found glass from her window scattered on the sidewalk and inside the truck.
The prize the thieves got for their effort? An umbrella and some paperwork. She checked her surveillance video.
“It was crazy, it was just weird to see because you can see that they were down the street, slowly going from car to car with their car, checking everybody's handles,” she said.
In that moment, Swyers became one of the thousands of car break-in victims across the St. Louis area.
It’s one of the main drivers of the city’s crime rate, according to an I-Team analysis of more than 7,000 car break-ins in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. The county data reflects unincorporated areas and places where St. Louis and St. Charles counties patrol.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department was not able to provide data on car break-ins.
The analysis also mapped out hotspots across the region that reflect when and where they are happening most often where St. Louis Metropolitan Police, St. Louis County Police or St. Charles County Police have jurisdiction.
Leaders of a task force that formed about a year ago to combat the problem in St. Charles County say they are starting to see their numbers trend in the right direction.
Swyers said she was shocked to learn Soulard is among the hotspots for car break-ins in the city with 160 break-ins happening there in 2021.
“One reason why I decided to go ahead and move down here was because the community was such a tight-knit community and very friendly,” she said.
What the data shows
Car break-ins in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County in October 2021 were clustered.
Reported car break-ins in St. Charles County, St. Charles City, Wentzville, Lake St. Louis, O'Fallon showed the most common hour for break-ins was 4 p.m. and were most likely to occur on Mondays.
The highest number of car break-ins reported to St. Louis police happened on October 11, with 40 incidents reported in a single day. In St. Louis County, it was October 29, with a high of 19 incidents.
The two jurisdictions experienced some differences in the time of day thieves were most likely to strike.
In parts of St. Louis County patrolled by the county police, one out of every five break-ins occurred between 8 and 11 p.m.
In the city, most car break-ins happened between 7 and 10 a.m.
Car break-ins were most commonly reported on Fridays in the county and on Mondays in the city.
The areas labeled "Data not available" are patrolled by a patchwork of dozens of police jurisdictions, each with different recordkeeping policies. A third of St. Louis County's population lives in the areas where we have data. The data we collected covers 60% of the residents of the three counties.
Swyers’ truck was broken into just after 2 a.m. at the end of January.
The following week, her neighbor’s van was broken into. Someone threw a brick through its back windows. Tape still holds up cardboard to cover the windows as he hasn’t been to get it fixed yet, Swyers said.
When her window was broken, the $350 expense hit hard, especially because the week before, her and husband spent over $1,000 on a vet bill for their cat.
“We really work hard to manage our business and for our things,” she said. “And I know a lot of people down here do as well, and just to be victimized, it's just so wrong, and I feel for the people who do it, really. I mean, they evidently are missing something.
What’s being done
Efforts to combat the issue vary across the area.
Police in St. Louis tell us they've had some luck decreasing the number of car break-ins during games downtown and during events at the Enterprise Center by beefing up patrols and using technology such as "SkyCop" cameras mounted on poles to show wide areas.
The St. Louis County Council enacted three ordinances last fall per the suggestion of former St. Louis County Police Chief turned Councilman Tim Fitch to address a variety of auto crimes, making vehicle prowling—or flipping door handles like Swyers saw on her cameras—an offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
St. Charles County adopted similar ordinances as did local governments in Arnold, Eureka, Ballwin, Richmond Heights and Ellisville.
Police in St. Charles County also joined forces to combat car break-ins, auto thefts and carjackings in early 2021. That task force includes officers from St. Charles County Police, St. Charles city police, St. Peters, O'Fallon, Lake St. Louis, Wentzville, Cottleville, the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department and Missouri Highway Patrol.
Break-ins like Swyer’s are their most frequent auto-related crime.
St. Charles County Police Chief Kurt Frisz said the task force is seeing some success.
In parts of St. Charles County patrolled by Frisz's department, police saw a 55% decrease in car break-ins from 2020 to 2021. In 2020, his department responded to 185 car break-ins. In 2021, the number dropped to 82.
So far this year, they've seen a 93% decrease in reported car break-ins compared to the same time frame in 2021, having responded to only six car break-ins.
The task force goes out several times a month with the sole mission of disrupting car break-ins and other auto crimes.
Frisz said they use numerous tactics, including spike strips to stop stolen cars, aerial surveillance and license plate readers. He said he has seen a decrease in the number of reported car break-ins since the task force formed about a year ago.
Frisz said it’s a three-pronged approach, which includes buy-in from not only a regional group of police departments, but also buy-in from the prosecutor’s office and judges.
"I think by just by the sheer numbers of arrests we've made and the support we've received from our prosecutors and our judges, I think we are having an impact in our community," Frisz said.
St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar has also adopted strict policies when it comes to auto-related crimes the task force brings his office.
Once someone is arrested in connection to an auto crime, prosecutors issue charges against them while they’re still in custody. Typically, Lohmar said, prosecutors would release a person suspected of a low-level property crime like a car break-in and issue a warrant later.
“The reason is, we want to send a message, if you get caught you’re not going home the next day,” Lohmar said.
Prosecutors are also asking judges to set high bonds, and, once the case goes to trial or comes up for negotiation, prosecutors are pushing for prison time, he said.
“When it comes to vehicle tamperings, stealings, that’s our hardline,” he said. “It’s prison across the board.”
Isn’t that a little much for a property crime?
“Our intelligence shows us the vast majority of these suspects are part of an organized effort with connections to much more serious crimes that have been terrorizing our community for the better part of two years,” Lohmar said. “It’s reached epidemic proportions and I don’t feel like it’s heavy-handed.”
Lohmar said the community is paying close attention to how car break-in suspects are being handled. In one week, a Facebook post about the arrest of one car break-in suspect garnered 80,000 page views.
In that case, a 21-year-old Spanish Lake man was charged with three counts of first-degree burglary and stealing over $750. St. Peters Police, the St. Charles County Auto Theft Task Force and St. Louis County Police Department developed Nicholas Tate as a suspect in dozens of car break-ins and auto thefts in the region.
Frisz said he was also connected to a mass break-in at an Amazon parking lot in St. Peters in which thieves broke into 49 cars in just under four minutes.
Police said Tate is also a ringleader of the Big Buckz gang out of north St. Louis, which has been breaking into cars in neighborhoods in St. Charles and St. Louis counties since early 2020.
What can the public do?
As for what regular citizens can do to protect their cars, Frisz recommends victims who catch thieves in the act call 911 and turn on all the lights in their house.
"These guys do not want to be confronted," he said. "They will usually just take off."
He added home surveillance systems have proven invaluable to law enforcement investigating the crimes and victims should report break-ins to police so they can track trends and tailor their enforcement to where it’s happening most often.
Swyers said she didn’t report her car break-in to St. Louis police because she figured it was a low-level crime and didn’t want to bother them with it.
She now finds herself with a new morning routine: Taking a walk around her truck before she opens for business to make sure it wasn’t broken into.
She still has her surveillance camera trained on it, so she can watch it while she works.
She’s planning to add one more feature to it as a deterrent.
“We're probably going to go look for a very loud alarm,” she said. “Even though we live upstairs, we didn't hear a thing, which was surprising because we're both very in tune with the noises that go around.”
Here is a list of some other information the I-Team gathered from its analysis of car break-in data:
Unincorporated St. Louis County —1,715 total reports
Most common hour for break-in reports: 8 p.m. (133 reports)
Second most common hour for break-in reports: 10 p.m.
21% of reports occurred after 8 p.m. and before 11 p.m.
Most common month for break-in reports: October (188 reports)
Single highest number of reports on a single date: 19 on 10/29/2021
Most common day of the week for break-in reports: Friday (291)
St. Louis City — 5,039 total reports
Most common hour for break-in reports: 9 a.m. (416 reports)
Second most common hour for break-in reports: 8 a.m.
23% of reports occurred after 7 a.m. and before 10 a.m.
Most common month for break-in reports: August (546 reports)
Single highest number of reports on a single date: 40 on 10/11/2021
Most common day of the week for break-in reports: Monday (787)
St. Charles City, Wentzville, Lake St. Louis, O'Fallon, and unincorporated St. Charles County — 474 total reports
Most common hour for break-in reports: 4 p.m. (36 reports)
Second most common hour for break-in reports: 3 p.m. (35 reports)
20% of reports occurred between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Most common month for break-in reports: January (74)
Single highest number of reports on a single date: 11 on 10/18/2021
Most common day of the week for break-in reports: Monday (98)