Think Out Loud

In Portland, volunteers help each other find stolen cars

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2022 5:15 p.m. Updated: Nov. 29, 2022 12:10 a.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Nov. 28

After spotting a stolen vehicle in his neighborhood and informing the owner via social media, Titan Crawford has made hunting for stolen cars a big part of his life. He’s the founder of the Facebook group, PDX Stolen Cars, which is made up of volunteers helping each other find stolen cars in Portland. When police have to prioritize other crimes, the group can be another way for Portlanders to actively work on getting their vehicles back. And it’s not just cars. Motorcycles have been found in the group too. Nicole Heath joined the group hoping to get her stolen motorcycle back. While she continues to search for it, she has helped others in the group find their stolen vehicles. She and Crawford join us with details of the group and the work they’re doing.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the DIY response to stolen vehicles in Portland. Last year, Titan Crawford created a Facebook group called PDX Stolen Cars. It is an all volunteer effort to find and recover these vehicles, and it has grown as a surge in car thefts has continued. Titan Crawford joins us now along with Nicole Heath, another volunteer who takes part in this effort. She is one of the administrators for this Facebook group. Titan Crawford and Nicole Heath, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Titan Crawford / Nicole Heath: Thanks for having us.

Miller: So Titan, first; what prompted you to start this group in the first place?

Crawford: It was October 7th, last year, and I was walking my dog in the neighborhood and found a clearly stolen vehicle. At the time, it wasn’t reported to the police. So with a little online sleuthing, I helped track down the owner and get them reunited with their car. And in that I noticed that there wasn’t a specific group for Portland and so on a whim, maybe almost as a joke,

I created PDX Stolen Cars, one night. And the next morning I woke up and people had joined and it just blossomed from there. The first week, about 300 people joined and it’s just kept going, ever since. People just randomly find us. And that’s how it started.

Miller: When you say on a whim, almost as a joke you started this group, what do you mean?

Crawford: Finding that car, it was like, “why isn’t there a dedicated thing for Portland?” There were other Facebook groups that did similar things that were for larger areas. But it seemed like I had noticed a lot of suspicious vehicles in the Portland area. So I thought, “well maybe maybe this could help,” or maybe it’ll be…I’m the only member of the group.

Miller: But you didn’t have high hopes for hundreds of people joining you?

Crawford: No. It was quite a surprise to me [when] after the first week there were 300 people in there. I’m going, “where are these people coming from?” That’s when it really dawned on me that there’s a serious problem of property theft in Portland.

Miller: Can you describe the rules that you’ve come up with in terms of how you want volunteers to look for and then deal with stolen vehicles?

Crawford: Yeah. So it’s a couple of different fronts that are involved there. You’ve got people that come into the group and say, “my car is stolen, here’s the information.” And then we ask that they actually type out the information, completely, like the VIN number and the license plate, because in the Facebook group it is searchable. So other people enjoy going out and looking for these cars and they’re constantly posting, “I found this vehicle, here’s the license plate,” and there’s publicly available resources that we take advantage of, to where we can run a license plate or VIN number to see if there’s a theft report. It’s not the same as police records, but it’s what we have, it’s the best that we can get our hands on at this time.

Miller: How current are those? I mean, if someone’s car was stolen two days ago, let’s say they reported it to police - but you’re saying you’re not relying on police records here - what are the chances that you would be able to know definitively, that that car has been reported as stolen?

Crawford: That’s been our sticking point. Sometimes the records are very accurate within a few hours. Other times, records are inaccurate because of the way that it gets reported through the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the National Motor Vehicle Database. So we always remind people to reach out to police to verify, because if something seems obviously stolen, and it’s not listed, use your better judgment. But as far as our members go and our volunteers, the very most important thing is safety. So the best thing you can do is take a video, or a picture from a distance. If it’s an occupied stolen vehicle that’s confirmed, you can get around non-emergency and actually call 911 because then there’s the potential for an arrest for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, if it’s an occupied stolen vehicle.

Miller: Nicole Heath, as I noted, you’re now one of the administrators for this group, for PDX Stolen Cars. How did you get involved in this effort?

Heath: Back in the beginning of January, my husband and I had recently gotten back together and he moved in, and one morning we left the house for a few minutes and we came home and his prized motorcycle was missing out of my driveway. We had no idea where it went. We were only gone for a few minutes. We checked our security camera, but unfortunately it was just out of view. I didn’t know what to do. So I posted somewhere on a local group like, “what do I do?” And somebody said, “hey, there’s this group called PDX Stolen Cars and they’re helping people find their vehicles, and you should post on there.” And I thought, “oh, great, perfect.”

So got on there and posted his motorcycle real fast, and unfortunately it’s still out there. We still have not recovered his bike yet. But in the meantime I started realizing that this is a bigger problem than I ever thought. And just from looking at the group posts, I thought, “while I’m out there looking for his bike, why don’t I help find other peoples’ vehicles” because everybody kept posting, ‘hey, these vehicles that were all stolen…’

It just kind of stuck. I just got hooked on it and love doing it and love what I do and eventually became admin after a while of helping out the group, and it’s been amazing.

Miller: What do you love about doing this?

Heath: I know it sounds really typical to say, “oh, I want to make the world a better place,” but I really do. I mean, I’m a caregiver, I help teach Special Ed and I love helping people out. That’s where my heart is. Seeing the reaction on somebody’s face when they see that they’re getting their vehicle back and they thought they were never gonna see it again. And you know that a couple of minutes or a couple of hours out of your day brought them that joy back in their life; that just makes me feel amazing. You just want to keep doing it.

Miller: So you have actually been the person to get in touch with some of the rightful owners of these vehicles and you’ve said, ‘hey, I found your Subaru?’

Heath: Absolutely, yeah. There’s been several where they’ve been able to come out and recover their vehicle and it’s an amazing feeling when people are so appreciative of something that you’ve done. It’s a good feeling.

Miller: Titan Crawford, do people ever offer you rewards when you and your team have found their vehicles?

Crawford: We avoid rewards or anything involving money. That’s just kind of a principle of the group because certain people have better financial means. So it wouldn’t be fair for the people that don’t, if there was rewards available. We wanted to just be fair play across the board for anybody to possibly get their car back.

Miller: What do you hear from people whose cars you recover?, As we just heard from Nicole, she sees huge smiles on their faces. What do they tell you?

Crawford: People are surprised. When a vehicle goes missing in the Portland area, there’s not a lot of hope that you’re going to get it back in reasonable condition. So those are the really happy ones, when you’ve found a vehicle. You’re able to find who the owner is and they can actually come down there and drive their car back home, after we’ve given them some advice about appropriate security measures to help prevent that in the future.

People work hard for their stuff. There was a Toyota a month or so ago I helped get back and he’s like, “I saved up for this for like three years, and I’ve got all my money into it. I never honestly thought I’d see it again.” He was pretty excited, although it was missing quite a few accessories, but just to have his truck back. Like Nicole said, it really makes you feel good to help people. Not everybody’s super excited, because that’s an emotional thing to go through losing your vehicle. But at the end of the day, when you can get it back, it’s gonna hopefully save you some stress and money. You can go about having a regular life instead of figuring out how you’re gonna get to work, or how you’re going to get the kids to school or go to the grocery store.

Miller: Nicole. Can you tell us about a memorable vehicle search that you’ve taken part in?

Heath: I think the dump truck story is always going to be my favorite… [Laughter]

Miller: Let’s hear the dump truck story. [Laughter]

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Heath: My husband and I were actually down at Delta Park looking for another member’s vehicle. There was a truck that I was just kind of stuck on finding and I did not find that truck.

However, I stumbled upon three guys in an F-750 dump truck that clearly did not belong to them. And I saw the license plate and I ran it and it had just been reported that morning, and I thought, “man, somebody wants a dump truck back.” So it was occupied. I called 911. They were sending somebody out, but unfortunately the driver decided to leave. And 911 will not stay on the phone with you; they don’t want you to follow vehicles. So unfortunately it turned into about five hours of calling 911 every time that they stopped. And every time they stopped I would stop and let [911] know where they were at. And eventually it was recovered all the way up in Vancouver. That was a big night. So totally happy that somebody got their dump truck back.

Miller: So you were actually following this vehicle and following what we can assume were the thieves of this vehicle. Were you nervous? And as you noted, you’ve been told not to do that, I guess, ‘Don’t follow these vehicles…’

Heath: Well, yeah. You always have to be safe, and in this case, it was such a large vehicle that it was really easy to keep eyes on them from a distance. They just circled Delta Park and the surrounding areas and literally drove in circles. It was fairly easy to just stay back and we would park across the street or across the way or just that we barely had eyes, just enough to be able to tell authorities where the vehicle was currently located.

Miller: You said that you saw the three people and then you were pretty sure that they didn’t belong in that truck. How do you make those kinds of decisions? Whether it’s about people who you think are suspicious, or a vehicle that you think is stolen? What are your own guidelines saying?

Heath: Yeah, there’s a lot of things. A lot of times with me, it’s just a gut feeling. You just get that gut feeling that something’s not right, something doesn’t look right. They were throwing bicycles in the back of the dump truck, riding in the back of the dump truck, not being safe. There were a lot of things that led me to believe that it did not belong to them.

Miller: We did reach out to the Portland Police Bureau for their take on car thefts and your collective efforts. We got a statement from their spokesperson. It reads in part:

“Although there is no question that in most situations, it’s safer for trained law enforcement officers to address criminal acts, it’s understandable that community members who are frustrated with crime might act on their own to address it. However, as any police officer in Portland will tell you, even the smallest chance of being caught can lead criminals to take extreme action. When it comes to locating stolen vehicles, I would say the more eyes the better. As a member of the Portland community, I for one am grateful when anyone is able to point officers to stolen vehicles, but only if the vehicle is unoccupied. Otherwise a call to 911 is the safest thing to do.”

Again, that’s part of a statement we got from the Portland Police Bureau. Titan, how would you describe your relationship right now with Portland Police?

Crawford: It’s actually really wonderful. There’s a lot of law enforcement that are in our group as volunteers, and there’s quite a few of them that participate actively, off duty and, or maybe we can’t say on duty, using us as a resource. And it’s like that statement said, we point police in the direction of a lot of stolen vehicles. Not everybody’s on social media saying “my car is stolen.” So with our resource of being able to have access to some records that will tell us if a vehicle is stolen or not. We’ve got 12,000 eyes out there and it helps narrow down the limited resources the officers have. They can’t be everywhere. Whereas a lot of people that we have in the group are…

Miller: I’m not sure I totally understood when you said that ‘some of them might be working on duty as well.’ What do you mean?

Crawford: A lot of officers, if you talk to them will say, “hey, we know who you guys are. We use your group as a resource all the time.”

Miller: So they can actually turn to the listings on your page as a way to learn, themselves, about stolen vehicles?

Crawford: Yeah. So if a vehicle has been identified as stolen, an officer will be able to reach out to the community member and go, “hey, this is confirmed stolen, where’s it at?” Because the officers out there, they do want to help people get their property back and solve these crimes. So it’s been a really neat thing to see and I’m super appreciative of every single one of them that hangs out with us and keeps an eye on the group and uses it as a way to help get more stolen vehicles recovered.

Miller: Ideally, these vehicles wouldn’t be being stolen in the first place, obviously. And also ideally, the people whose job it is to find them, would be finding all of them. We don’t have time now to get into staffing questions and crime response prioritization questions, but I did see that recently Portland Police did some stolen car retrieval missions. Have you seen an increase in this work by police officers, themselves?

Crawford: Yes, particularly in the East Precinct. They’ve gone out, that I know of in the last month, with two stolen car missions; information that is awesome to hear. I believe, one night, they recovered 18 “stolens.” They had a bird in the air with 17 arrests.

As a community group, we do our best, but the resources that they have, when they can put them to use like that, the results are pretty awesome. And after that we kind of had a slow week, which is great.

Miller: You actually saw a decrease after an increase in police activity?

Crawford: Yeah, it was pretty interesting because I had a team with me that went out following that, the next day, and it was pretty barren. We only found three “stolens”. Whereas this morning we’ve located three “stolens”, up until the last hour ago.

Miller: Well, how much time do you spend doing this?

Crawford: I don’t want to add it up because it’s a lot.

Miller: [Laughing] Nicole, what about you? Are you brave enough to add up this volunteer time?

Heath: Honestly, I don’t leave my house without looking for “stolens.”

Miller: Wait. So if you go to the grocery store to get some milk, at least a part of you is on the lookout for stolen vehicles?

Heath: Oh yeah, I will be checking out my surroundings everywhere that I go. It’s just a habit. You look around and if you see a car with a broken window, you’re [like], “I should go look closer at that.” Because you just never know when you can help. It could be anywhere. You usually don’t go looking for them. They usually just find you.

Miller: Titan, is that the same for you? That now you can’t help but see stolen cars?

Crawford: I’ll try and separate it a little bit because, just like Nicole, I work a regular job. I think it was two weeks ago, I was just trying to go grocery shopping and I pulled in right behind the stolen Jeep Cherokee…

Miller: [Laughing]

Crawford:  …like, “are you kidding me? I’m just trying to go grocery shopping.” Some days you can’t turn a corner without running into a “stolen” in Portland. It’s just what it is right now. Those of us that have done this a long time, our heads are always on swivel. Like Nicole said, a broken window, an odd looking door handle, a $90,000 truck sitting where it’s never sat before - a lot of us will travel the same areas and we’re familiar with the vehicles that are there. So when you see something out of place, it catches your attention quite quickly.

Miller: Nicole, as you noted, you got into this because your husband’s prized motorcycle was stolen. We’re getting close to the one year anniversary of that. Are you still holding out hope that you’re going to find that or that somebody is going to find that?

Heath: We are. Unfortunately, because it was the wintertime, it was being stored in a safer location previously, and we didn’t realize it was going to get stolen, it was not covered by insurance. So we are out, until it is found. We’re one of those unfortunate situations where a bad decision was made, and we are paying for it. But I really believe in karma and I really hope that everything that I’m doing … [that] somebody’s gonna find it. It’s out there somewhere.

Miller: Nicole Heath and Titan Crawford, thanks very much.

Heath: Hey, thank you. Have a great day.

Miller: You too. Nicole Heath is one of the administrators for the Facebook group PDX Stolen Cars. Titan Crawford is the founder of it.

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