In the past month, reports of stolen vehicles in Bethel have more than doubled. Twice, multiple thefts have occurred on the same day. What makes this strange is that Bethel is off the road system. With the river still unfrozen, there are not many places to go.
When Chelsea Hoffman went to sleep on Oct. 28, she had no worries. After all, her beloved truck was parked right outside her window.
“You can’t miss it. It’s orange, F-150. It’s, like, an older truck,” Hoffman said. “I love it.”
But then her husband went outside the next morning to start it.
“It was gone!” Hoffman said. She says that she went into a full-body sweat.
“You feel so violated that somebody is outside your home while you’re sleeping, just rummaging through your things,” Hoffman said.
She jumped out of bed and called the police. The hunt was on to find it.
“I’m so glad the river wasn’t frozen,” Hoffman said. “They took my cousin Colin’s car, and they found it in, like, Napakiak.”
Acting Police Chief Amy Davis says that with most stolen vehicles in Bethel, they find the car a few days later. After all, there’s only so much road. She says that stolen cars are often just taken for a joyride.
“Usually we or their owner will find them out in the pit or just ditched somewhere,” Davis said.
She confirmed that stolen vehicle reports in Bethel spiked last month, up to eight from the usual three. She thinks the cold weather and people warming up their cars might have something to do with it.
“A lot of times it’s just a crime of opportunity: walking by, ‘Oh I see keys in there, I’m gonna take that vehicle,’” Davis said.
That happened to Fili’s Pizza owner Mefail Saliu last month. An employee started warming up his truck, went inside, and when he came out it was gone. But Saliu doesn’t blame the employee.
“It’s cold out there,” Saliu said. “I bet everyone does that.”
The next day, police found Saliu’s truck behind Public Health Nursing.
“The guy who stole it left his backpack and his ID there. Next thing we find out, he turned himself in,” Saliu said.
But according to Davis, not many people leave their IDs in the car or turn themselves in. Most of the time, police never find the thief.
“Usually there’s not a lot of evidence unless there’s an eyewitness or cameras,” Davis said. While police do take fingerprints off of stolen vehicles, she said, “the crime lab is swamped with sexual crimes, homicides, so they’re going to get a very low priority at the crime lab.”
For Dan Mullins, the worst part about getting his car stolen was the timing.
“I wish they had stolen it two weeks earlier, before I had gotten all the work done,” Mullins said.
A few months ago, he said, he bought his burgundy Jeep Cherokee for $500, then towed it home because it didn’t run.
He worked for the next two months, replacing broken parts.
“The starter, alternator, fuel pump, battery, and the rear axle,” Mullins said. “It’s hard to get parts shipped to Bethel.”
When he found his car the day after it was stolen, stuck in the mud a few blocks from his house, it was trashed.
“The driver’s side door was smashed in, glass was all over the front seat. The front bumper was hit, the back quarter panel was smashed in, and the fuel tank was punctured,” Mullins said.
It was tough seeing all his work go to waste.
“I had a sense of pride in taking one of those abandoned vehicles and making it work, and now it’s back to being an abandoned vehicle,” Mullins said.
Although not in the condition he wanted it, Mullins did get his car back. So did Saliu and Hoffman. And they all had help. Hoffman says that’s the one silver lining in all this.
“Once daylight hit, everybody in Bethel was looking for it,” Hoffman said. “Our community is just so awesome in that way. When anything happens, everybody is just so quick to, like, help.”
But she doesn’t want to go looking for it ever again. Hoffman says that she’s going to be locking up her truck from now on.