Media

Auto thefts up 77% this year, an average of 20 each day

By Gabriella Killett  | nola.com | December 16, 2023

Having fallen on hard times, John Malley and his wife, Alexandria Thibodeaux, moved Dec. 6 from Colorado to New Orleans, where relatives offered them a place to stay until they could get back on their feet. They set about searching for work, and in the meantime, Malley, 33, started driving for a meal delivery service.

That’s what he was doing Wednesday when he parked and locked his car on Poydras Street at Loyola Avenue to pick up an order from a restaurant.

He emerged 90 seconds later, and his 2017 Volkswagen Tiguan was gone. Malley called Thibodeaux, then 911. Police arrived within minutes, and the first words from the officer’s mouth, Malley said, were, “Welcome to New Orleans.”

It was a rude welcome to a city where, in 2023, an average of 20 automobiles are reported stolen every day. While violent crime in general is down this year in New Orleans, auto thefts have risen, from 3,790 in 2022 to 6,709 so far in 2023 – a 77% increase.

Shaken

Police recovered Malley’s car two days later and 10 blocks away, in the 1800 block of South Rampart Street. Still, the theft shook the couple. Their temporary livelihood had been taken away.

“We’re fighting for shelter, we have no money,” Thibodeaux, 32, said. “You got to laugh because what else do you do but accept help and ride the wave?”

Pinpointing the reason for any crime trend is something of a guessing game.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, attributed the initial 2023 spike in auto thefts to viral internet videos that showed would-be criminals how to start Hyundais and Kias without a key. Now, clandestine thefts have supplanted carjackings, a scourge in New Orleans in 2022, as the preferred method for pilfering rides.

“The offenders realize that it’s easier to steal a car than it is to carjack somebody,” Goyeneche said.

A shift in crime

Christopher Torres, a criminology professor at Loyola University, said perpetrators usually jump from one type of crime to a less severe one once there is a “major increase in public awareness” or “an increase in police efforts to combat the specific crime.” 

“Carjacking, a violent form of robbery, tends to attract more attention over a car that is unattended,” Torres said. “Thus, it makes sense that with increased public attention and possible increased police attention, individuals would choose the less severe form over the other.”

Goyeneche said an experienced thief likely was responsible for taking Malley’s SUV, because it happened so quickly. Most thefts, he said, are carried out by a small pool of criminals.

“Someone was obviously looking for an opportunity,” he said.

‘Devastating offense’

And while carjackings are often more traumatic, Goyeneche said, impersonal thefts take a toll on households. 

“An automobile is what people use to support … a living,” Goyeneche said. “It’s definitely a devastating offense.” 

Malley and Thibodeaux said losing their vehicle was the latest in a whirlwind of troubles they’ve faced. 

“John had had a great day that day making money, and then the freaking car gets stolen,” Thibodeaux said. “That’s really stressful, especially because I have a loan that I’m trying to pay off within two weeks.”

Now that they have the vehicle back, they are trying to stay positive.

“While this horrible thing happened, I’m really counting our blessings,” Thibodeaux said. “A lot of people don’t have community. A lot of people don’t have … help.”