Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Samaritans' offer to push, then steal the car

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Call them wolves in Samaritans' clothing.

Winnipeg police say a Nebraska man got stuck in the snow last Saturday morning in the inner city and then had his car stolen when three seemingly kind-hearted Winnipeggers stopped by to help.

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The Omaha man was driving near Sherbrook Street and Notre Dame Avenue when his 2012 Ford Focus got hung up on a snowbank. A van pulled up, and three people got out and said they could push the car out.

Their intentions were less than honourable.

"The keys were in the ignition. A male got into the car and when it was freed, he drove off," said Const. Jason Michalyshen, a spokesman for the Winnipeg Police Service.

Two females then jumped in the van and sped off, leaving the man stranded in the bitter cold.

Michalyshen said the car was recovered Monday in a Windsor Park shopping mall lot, but sustained damage and was towed to a Manitoba Public Insurance compound.

The American visitor, who has relatives in Manitoba, has since returned home.

No arrests have been made. Investigators are checking footage from surveillance cameras near where the vehicle was stolen and also where it was dumped by the car thief.

Christine Fisher, whose business is near the lot where the car was dumped, contacted police about the abandoned Focus. She was later told by an officer about the scam to rip off the car.

"These thugs make me embarrassed to be a Winnipegger," said Fisher. "I'm sure this man will think Winnipeg is a horrible place."

The story was just one of many over the last few weeks where a warm vehicle was a hot item for car thieves.

In fact, of the 166 vehicles stolen in the city in December, 52 were taken when the vehicle was running with the keys in the ignition. Another 34 vehicles were stolen after the keys were lifted (or misplaced) in public areas, and 15 vehicles were swiped when owners left spare keys in the vehicle. Another 65 vehicles were stolen in Winnipeg under different circumstances.

Though starting the car and letting it warm up is a common practice during this chilly winter, police remind residents to never leave their vehicles unattended while running or just with the keys in the ignition, for any period of time.

Police are also looking at how many of the 166 pilfered vehicles were used in other criminal acts.

While he couldn't say definitively, Michalyshen said one was used to facilitate a break-in to another vehicle, two were intentionally set on fire after being stolen and another was involved in a gas-and-dash from a service station.

While stealing a car is a crime, the larger and more pressing concern is what car thieves do with the vehicle once they get their mitts on it.

"That is the concern. It's not just the vehicle being stolen... In a lot of different cases, as soon as these vehicles are stolen, (thieves) will use those vehicles to become involved in other criminal acts," said Michalyshen. "Having a stolen vehicle, for some of these individuals, it almost feels like a bit of a force field -- no one's going to identify them... and they will drive these vehicles erratically, put other people at risk; they'll put officers at risk."

-- with files from James Turner

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2014 A10

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