HOUSTON – Talk to law enforcement about auto burglaries and thefts in the Houston area and they will say it is an industry.
It is one Sgt. Tracy Hicks of the Houston Police Department knows well.
“These professional criminals, they are breaking into cars, they are stealing cars every day," Hicks said.
The bottom line for victims like Tina Kingshill?
“It really sucks," Kingshill said.
Over a $1 billion problem in Texas
Lt. Tommy Hansen of the Galveston County Sherriff's Office has been on the clock for nearly 40 years fighting automobile theft.
“It’s very troubling because it is only getting worst and we don’t have the resources that we need to address the problem like we should be able to," he said.
Hansen is also the board chair of the Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Authority for the state of Texas. and knows automobile theft in the Lone Star state is big business.
“It’s a billion-dollar plus business in Texas," Hansen said.
Criminals with multiple offenses still operating in our backyard?
Statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau lists Houston as one of the worst major cities in the nation.
“This hits everybody,” Hicks said.
Hicks has been a member of Houston Police Department’s Auto Theft Task Force for the last 14 years, where they deal with career criminals.
Channel 2 Investigates spoke with members of the state's task force this past spring.
It was there where we first learned of criminals being picked up with multiple prior auto theft arrests on their records. The state’s task force identified over 1,100 offenders with three or more offenses of motor vehicle theft in their 2017 findings.
What are victims saying?
Kingshill is a 64-year-old Houstonian who knows firsthand the violence that comes with automobile theft.
"Unbelievable and unacceptable,” she said.
On Sept. 2nd, she was carjacked by a 17-year-old in southeast Houston.
“'Get out of the car, I have a gun and I will shoot you,'" the carjacker said to her. "And that was it. It was that quick.”
Those were the words she heard during the incident that lasted a matter of seconds.
HPD caught up with the perpetrator shortly thereafter, but he did not stay long within the system. The short stint summed up in three words by Kingshill.
“Angry, very angry," she said.
Kingshill said her assailant should never have been back on the streets so quickly, but a personal recognizance bond is what allowed for a rapid return to a life of crime.
Ten days after Kinghill’s carjacking, the teen pistol whipped a priest, carjacked multiple individuals and ultimately shot an HPD officer before being shot dead.
Criminals are more aware of tougher counties
According to Hicks, criminals also have done their legal homework, knowing which counties are tough on automobile theft and which ones are not.
“Professional criminals, they know where the county line is and we’ve watched them do it more than once," Hicks said. “They’ll do the U-turn at the freeway right where the Montgomery County line is.”
Hicks said they will do the same in the southwest part of the county.
“When they hit that Fort Bend County (line), they do a U-turn and come back up," he said.
Unlike a stolen vehicle, the problem is not vanishing.
Hansen said there is one key reason.
“Every form of major criminal activity has to have transportation," he said.
According to Hansen, the vast majority of automobile thefts committed are done to use the vehicle in another crime.
What the task force is calling for is stiffer penalties regarding auto theft.
However, a temporary fix for now is enforcement of the law to the fullest by prosecutors and judges.
“We know that a lot of these victims wouldn’t be victims if we could have just kept this guy in jail a little bit longer," he said.
What is the Harris County District Attorney saying?
The District Attorney’s Office did not make anyone available for an interview.
The office provided the following statement:
“The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is dedicated to getting dangerous criminals off our streets. Auto thieves are no exception and the increased number of felony auto theft cases that our administration has filed clearly reflects this. We urge judges to consider public safety as they set bonds that are appropriate.”
Hansen said there is something dramatically wrong with the system if a crook is nailed three or more times and remains on the street free.
Right now, they may get a felony and jail time if anything at all, he tells Channel 2 Investigates.
Hansen said district attorney offices should embed prosecutors within the task force to have a better understanding of the real fight going on.