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KSL Investigates a spike in car break-ins at Utah trailheads

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Each year, millions of people spend time Utah’s mountains.

For many, the routine is simple: drive up the canyon, park your car, lock the doors, and go for a hike.

What you often don’t see is sometimes, you’re being watched.

The Woolley family say their minivan was broken into in Big Cottonwood Canyon last January.

The Woolley family is a prime example.

Four months ago, they drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon to celebrate their mom’s birthday.

They parked their minivan in the parking lot of the White Pine Trailhead, to take some family photos at a nearby bridge.

“Literally, it’s only about 200 yards down,” said Mark Woolley.

His wife, Holly Woolley, added they were gone for only a short time. “I would say we were out of the car like 20 minutes tops,” she said.

Somewhere in that 20 minute window, they say their mini-van was broken into and cleaned out.

“I’d say in about an hour’s time,” said Holly, “they’d run up about two thousand dollars.”

Two thousand dollars on their credit cards. And those cards weren’t the only things stolen.

Their 6 year old son is diabetic, and his insulin kit was also gone.

“Diabetes can kill you,” said Mark. “You can go low and go into a coma and die. He felt every minute of that for a 6 year old.”

At that very moment, the Woolley family became another number; a statistic of a crime that’s on the rise, and not by a little.

The KSL Investigators went digging through police reports from seven different canyons in Salt Lake County.

Police reports show in the past four years, car break-ins nearly tripled, from 47 break-ins in 2014 to 133 in 2017.

Those hiking around the S-Curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon have become the biggest targets with 67.

Other top trails targeted by thieves:

  • • Donut Falls  — 54 break-ins
  • • Temple Quarry — 52 break-ins
  • • Storm Mountain — 33 break-ins
  • • Rattle Snake Gulch — 29 break-ins

“It’s like they found a new place to do crime,” says Detective Lee Arnold with Unified Police.

For the past eight years, Detective Arnold has patrolled up and down the canyons, and says there’s a number of reasons for the spike in break-ins.

First off, he says there’s a lot of traffic – five million people a year to be exact, in Big Cottonwood Canyon alone.

And while a lot of those people lock their doors, that’s not how the crooks are getting in.

Arnold showed us a small tool that looks like a screwdriver. It’s called a punch, and is easily hidden in someone’s hand. He says crooks will use it to quickly break the window of a car.

“Hit the car. Grab the bag. And go. That quick,” says Arnold.

About a year and a half ago, Arnold busted a duo who were far from rookies at the smash and grab game.

He says they preyed on unsuspecting hikers for months, responsible for more than 50 car burglaries.

Their mode of operation was easy: sit, wait, and once the hiker got on the trail, break-in.

Hoping to catch a crook or two, the KSL Investigators set up cameras at the trailheads, closely watching those coming and going. We never saw a burglary.

What we did see is why these parking lots are such a hot spot.

Walking up and down a row of parked cars along the S-Curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon with Arnold, we saw personal property out in the open inside hikers’ cars: from electronics to purses to backpacks.

At one point, we saw five cars in a row inadvertently advertising their property.

Arnold says valuables left in the open are the primary reason car burglaries are skyrocketing in the canyons.

Just ask the Woolley’s.

In just 20 minutes, their short hike and birthday celebration changed dramatically.

Valuables were stolen.

Credit cards were gone.

And if you still believe it’ll never happen to you, there’s one thing you should never forget – the numbers never lie.

So before you head up through the canyons this summer, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

First, leave anything of value at home. If you’re not going hike with it, don’t take it.

Tip number two: if you decide to ignore tip number one, make sure you hide your purse, bag or laptop before you park.

As mentioned, crooks are often watching and they can see if you’re hiding something under the seat.

Bottom line, if they don’t see anything inside your car, the chances of them breaking into it will likely go down.

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