The Teton County Sheriff’s Office is warning the public that thieves are targeting unlocked cars and unsecured garages to steal weapons, purses, wallets, cell phones and other valuables. Reports of thefts from vehicles have been occurring in Choteau, Dutton and Fairfield for several months.
Sheriff Keith VanSetten on July 21 said random calls about this sort of theft started coming into the Sheriff’s Office last fall and have multiplied during the spring and summer. One person, Steven Michael Johnson Jr., 20, 212 Third St. N., Fairfield has been arrested in connection with thefts from four vehicles in Choteau in January and May and is also accused of searching four other vehicles unsuccessfully for items to steal.
Johnson has been arraigned in the 9th Judicial District Court in Choteau and has pleaded innocent to four counts of theft by common scheme, felonies, and eight counts of trespass to vehicles, misdemeanors. He is accused of stealing four firearms from vehicles that were parked, unlocked, in front of people’s homes.
VanSetten said the Sheriff’s Office has continued to receive theft reports and last week arrested a Great Falls woman in connection with a number of thefts in Fairfield. He said more arrests are expected as the investigation continues.
In some cases, he said, the Sheriff’s Office has been able to recover the stolen items while in other cases the items remain missing. He said the four stolen guns were recovered. Another cache of stolen items was found in a hayfield on VanSetten’s property north of Choteau where thieves dumped empty cell phone cases and wallets.
Two Choteau women who were riding their horses saw a vehicle stopped along the county road and after the vehicle left rode over to investigate. They found stolen items including a baritone, community band music and a music stand, that had been stolen from a musician’s car in Choteau.
VanSetten said, “These people are focusing on vehicles that are not locked.” He said the thieves have not broken into cars or garages that are locked, but are looking for easy ways to steal items they can convert to cash, likely to support some kind of substance abuse habit.
In some cases, he said, the thieves have simply taken the car keys from vehicles left with the keys in the ignition. Sometimes other valuables have been left in cars while credit and debit cards have been taken.
“If you have property, lock it whether you have valuables inside or not,” the sheriff said, adding that the thieves are looking for convenient situations where they can quickly grab items and be on their way.
The best way to stop this kind of crime, he said is for people to lock their cars, garages and homes and never to leave valuables inside a parked vehicle.