Ridgefield, best known for its booming theater scene and historic Main Street, has become an attraction for criminals involved in grand theft auto this year.

In the first 10 months of 2017, Ridgefield police have investigated reports of 11 stolen vehicles. By comparison, between 2014 and 2016, only three cars were reported stolen in town.  

So what exactly is causing this spike in crime?

Ridgefield police Capt. Jeff Kreitz has a finger pointed north to Waterbury, where a gang of car thieves has made a target of affluent communities with unlocked cars.

“This group is going around at night and in the early morning hours and specifically targeting unlocked vehicles,” Kreitz told The Press last week.

He added that of the 11 cases reported this year, eight of them can be traced back to Waterbury.

While there’s nothing sophisticated about stealing a car with the keys left inside, how the criminals cover their tracks suggests a certain level of organization.

According to Kreitz, gang members replace one or both of the stolen car’s license plates with plates stolen from another vehicle. The plates are either sourced from an abandoned vehicle that won’t go missed by the owner or stolen from the front license plate from a car on the street.  

A plate scanner in a patrol car would spot the discrepancy — but only if the officer checked that every plate matched the make and model of every car the officer passed. With the number of cars police pass on the road, Kreitz said, it’s unlikely an officer would notice.

He stressed that the police rely heavily on the public to report anything stolen, including something as seemingly inconsequential as a front license plate.

“If you notice your plate is stolen, report it,” he said.

‘The club’

Given the number of anti-theft devices in modern cars, the spike in car thefts seems surprising.

But Kreitz said the group does not seem to specifically target high-end vehicles.

The eight cars that were stolen in Ridgefield by the Waterbury group range from a Porsche to a Honda to a Chevy. Kreitz added that a Mercedes, a Subaru, and two Saabs have also been nabbed by the gang. Seven of the eight cars have been recovered, including an Audi A6 that was stolen from a residence on Hessian Drive in the early morning hours of Sept. 12.

That car was recovered more than a month later, on Oct. 16, after a state police

chase ended in the arrest of a Waterbury man.

The pursuit started after officers heard reports of an Audi with plates that did not match the vehicle description. Running the car’s vehicle identification number stamped on the body revealed it had been flagged as stolen.

“You can’t outrun the radio,” Kreitz said.

He added that none of the stolen cars had been hot-wired, a practice that mostly died out after the 1990s.

“That’s when ‘The Club’ used to be really popular,” Kreitz said, referring to the ratcheting steering wheel locks people used to prevent theft.

What happens to the cars once they’re in the thieves’ hands has changed from the days of yesteryear. While a car stolen in past decades might have been destined for a nearby chop shop, the Waterbury group seems to prefer to use stolen cars to commit other crimes.

Kreitz said the gang even appears to be loaning the stolen cars out, as in the case of an Audi stolen from Hessian Drive last month that state troopers recovered after a pursuit on I-84 near Middlebury.

He added that the group used the cars for a number of crimes — and occasional joyrides — but seem to prefer credit card fraud.

Once the group has stolen a car, Kreitz said, members use it to drive to a location to make a purchase with a stolen credit card, taken from either an unlocked car or another source.

This tactic keeps members from being identified by police if the car is spotted on surveillance, Kreitz said.

Shooting

The group’s methods fit the description of a group of teens who attempted to steal a Range Rover from a Hulda Lane home this past June. The homeowner, local restaurant owner Mauro Tropeano, heard the attempted car theft and fired on the

group of teens.

A 15-year-old girl from Waterbury was shot in the back. She was later admitted to

Waterbury Hospital, where doctors were unable to remove the bullet near her spine. She was eventually released, and is expected to recover.

Police later arrested her in connection with the robbery, after an investigation linked her to the shooting. She had earlier told police that she had been shot on the street in Waterbury. Another 16-year-old girl was also arrested in connection with the robbery.  

Tropeano, who has been charged with assault in the second degree, interference with the duty of an officer, and illegally discharging a firearm, is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, Dec. 5.

Kreitz said there have been no other reports of violence or carjacking involving car thefts.

Prevention tips

Kreitz said residents should take care to lock their cars and remove any valuables — even when the car is parked in the resident’s own driveway.

He stressed that residents who witness a theft should try to give police as many details as possible, such as:

  • A brief description of the activity.
  • Date, time and location of the activity.
  • A physical description of the suspect, including clothing.
  • Description of any vehicles observed.
  • Information about where people involved in the suspicious activity may have gone.
  • Your name and contact information (optional) so officers can follow up with you.

Police ask that residents who suspect any car or license plate theft call Ridgefield headquarters at 203-438-6531.

“I always say that larceny is the crime of opportunity,” Kreitz said.