‘Car Hopping” teens stole dozens of cars, police say

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – A massive investigation into a string of car thefts in the area has netted several juvenile suspects and over half a million dollars being recovered, according to a Kingsport Police Department (KPD) announcement.

According to a press release from KPD, nearly 50 vehicles in the region were stolen and 120 vehicles were broken into from July 1 to August 11.

In response to the thefts, KPD began assembling a coalition of investigators from local agencies like the Johnson City Police Department, Mount Carmel Police Department and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office as well as state and federal agencies like the TBI and FBI.

After hundreds of work hours across several organizations, the release stated there were two independent rings of auto thieves operating in the Tri-Cities and that most of the thefts could be linked back to the groups.

“In all, eight total suspects have been identified,” the release reads. “Seven of whom are juveniles between the ages of 13 and 15. The sole adult suspect just turned 18 years of age.”

Charges for the alleged suspects were still pending on Thursday, but the release stated that charges of motor vehicle theft, auto burglary, vandalism and possession of stolen firearms can be expected.

As a result of the investigation, the KPD release said that over 100 different cases were cleared with $527,500 in stolen cars and firearms being recovered. Police also recovered a total of 33 stolen vehicles.

“While several agencies and individuals played significant roles in this investigation,” said KPD chief Dale Phipps. “I want to specifically recognize Detective Robbie Mills and Detective Jason Powers of the K.P.D. Criminal Investigations Division for their personal contributions to this case. Their hard work and tireless dedication is noticed and appreciated.”

The release went on to add that none of the cars broken into during any of the investigated cases were locked at the time of the theft, and vehicles that were stolen either had a key inside or nearby.

In a technique the KPD called “Car Hopping,” the suspects allegedly stepped from car to car in parking lots while testing door handles to check for unlocked cars. Those that were unlocked were burglarized, and those with keys accessible were stolen.

Sean White, a resident of the White City neighborhood in Kingsport, reported the teens tried to open his car on three occasions. He captured one individual on a security camera.

“The security cameras caught them coming and trying to get into the car, and then they would check for a minute when they saw the car was locked. Then they would turn around and leave and join their friends,” White said.

White’s vehicle was locked and nothing was stolen, but a neighbor reported a stolen phone.

“Between 2 and 3 am, one night my wife was woken up and caught kids going from house to house trying to break in,” White said.

Kingsport Police PIO Tom Patton said juveniles engaging in car theft is not a new trend, but this spree has been one of the most severe.

“We’ve seen surges like this, and we’ve surges like this involving juveniles, but this is probably the highest magnitude at any one time that we’ve seen, and it’s so easily preventable,” Patton said.

Patton said the “car hopping” required no use of technology to open up vehicles. He said the teens were only looking for unlocked cars.

“These criminals are not using any high-tech gadgetry. They’re not picking locks. They’re not hot-wiring cars. They’re simply going around looking for unlocked cars,” Patton said.

He said most of the thefts were confined to subdivision neighborhoods.

“Many folks who live around here realize that it is a relatively safe area and a relatively low-crime area, and so these criminals are taking advantage of people’s complacency,” Patton said.

Patton urged residents to lock their cars to prevent theft, but also to take special care when stowing firearms in vehicles.

“We should never leave it in the car unlocked and we should certainly never leave it in the car overnight,” Patton said. “Doing so has allowed juveniles to get their hands on firearms.”

White hoped the attempted thefts would be over with now eight individuals identified.

“I would think that would be a deterrent for other children or adolescents who are thinking about committing these crimes,” White said.

Patton said the investigation into the thefts is ongoing and more individuals and charges may be added.