New hire in detective unit credited for Jefferson County’s high stolen vehicle recovery rate

Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 10:17 PM CST
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JEFFERSON COUNTY (KMOV) -- Car thefts have increased across the region. But, one county is reporting a massive crackdown on the crime plaguing the greater St. Louis area.

Kevin Moore is a lifelong Jefferson County resident. He and his wife live off Seckman Road in Imperial.

“I’ve had things stolen from my vehicle in front of my house,” Moore said.

He said they feel safe in their neighborhood but would never leave their cars unlocked outside.

“They are always looking for low-hanging fruit so the more opportunity we give thieves, the more likely we are to become one of those areas where the crime goes up,” Moore said.

But throughout Jefferson County, thieves are lurking and looking for opportunities.

“They would hit numerous spots at once,” Detective Sierra Lewis said.

Lewis is Jefferson County Sheriff’s newest crime scene analyst.

“If I don’t collect it myself, I don’t usually want to know where it came from,” Lewis said.

She’s working through a backlog of evidence the sheriff’s office is holding onto.

“I’ll disappear down here two to three days at a time to get caught up on everything,” Lewis explained. “It’s probably 14, 15 different items that takes all that time.”

She said for scenes involving a stolen vehicle, her favorite spots to look for prints are the rearview mirror and fast food wrappers left behind.

“It’s interesting to see what people don’t value, what they leave behind in their car that has their DNA or prints on them,” Lewis shared.

Since moving Lewis into her new spot last year, Sheriff Dave Marshak said stolen vehicle recovers have hit 83 percent, and car thefts are decreasing.

Maintaining pressure on criminals

The next step for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to ramp up its crackdown not just on car thefts, but all crime, is to install its own crime lab.

“Our own crime lab would be a game changer,” Public Safety Information Coordinator for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Grant Bissell, said.

Jefferson County currently has to ship evidence for certain crimes to the state level for examination. The issue is that the Missouri State Highway Patrol is also backlogged. Bissell said it can take three to 18 months for evidence to be processed. In some cases, there is no processing because of the backlog and staff shortages.

“Because of the overwhelming amount on their plates, they [the state] have now said they don’t process type of evidence x y and z, and that’s just not fair to crime victims,” Bissell said.

The biggest hold-up for this sheriff’s office to get its own crime lab is money. There are dollars already in-house thanks to ARPA funds, but more is needed.

A call for other counties to follow

Detective Lewis said the biggest difference between the sheriff’s office she works for and others is a commitment to invest in people, allow appropriate time to examine evidence, and to prosecute criminals.

“If people know that they won’t get away with crime in Jefferson County, it’s a big deterrent,” Detective Lewis explained. “I think we have made a good record of, ‘Hey if you bring your problems to Jeff Co, you will have to pay the price for it.’”

Another step the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office takes to protect residents is the program “Night Eyes,” where deputies patrol neighborhoods and let residents know their garage door is open, maybe move their car inside, or check their car to make sure it’s locked.

It’s those simple things deputies said keep residents from becoming a victim.

“Don’t leave the keys in the car, don’t attract it, and we’re better off for it,” Kevin Moore said as he turned to head back into his house.

News 4 has requested similar data on car thefts and recoveries from neighboring counties in the St. Louis region. News 4 has reported on the larger volume the City of St. Louis has seen in recent years: 4,132 car thefts in 2021 followed by 7,366 in 2022. But data on how many vehicles are returned to their owner is unknown.