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By Dan Rudy 

Three vehicles believed linked in destructive car thefts

 

Dan Rudy

Burnt to the rims and with melted windows, a car belonging to a Wrangell retiree was discovered in another resident's yard early Tuesday. It had apparently been stolen from a mechanic's garage the previous evening and driven to the site before it caught fire. Whether the vehicle was burned intentionally or incidentally is being determined by law enforcement officials.

The Wrangell Police Department is investigating the reported thefts and damage of three vehicles over the course of three or four days.

Two pickup trucks and a sedan are believed to be involved in the case, with one truck damaged, another ditched, and the car burnt to cinders. Chief Doug McCloskey explained the department has a suspect, but formal charges are yet to be filed. This person, left unidentified until charges are eventually brought, has not been taken into custody as of Wednesday morning.

"We're still in the process of investigating it," the chief said.

The sequence of events runs as follows: Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, Officer Rick Groshong went to the horse track near Volunteer Park. A white pickup truck was apparently "hot-rodding" around the track, McCloskey recounted. Alcohol did not appear to be a factor, and he explained the driver of the vehicle had "a plausible story at the time. Claimed that he borrowed the pickup, and he knew who the owner was."

Notification of a death came in shortly afterward at 12:31 a.m., which took priority. As Groshong was the only officer on duty at the time, he left to attend to that. Once that call was concluded, at 1:25 a.m. the officer contacted the truck's owner, Mike Lane, to follow up about the circumstances.

When it was determined permission had not been given to use the truck, Groshong returned to the track directly. Since his last exchange with the driver, the truck had been driven off the shoulder of the gravel road connecting Spur Road with the Volunteer Park parking lot. McCloskey was at that point called out at 1:57 a.m. to assist.

"The driver of that vehicle contacted a friend of his to help pull him out," McCloskey said.

A sports utility vehicle had been driven to the scene by Leann Russell, 22. Apparently intoxicated, she was arrested at 2:15 a.m. for driving under the influence. While his department was still assessing the situation, McCloskey said their suspected vehicle thief was meanwhile given a ride back to his residence at 2:24.

About an hour later, another arrest was made at the horse track. Logan Padgett, 18, returned to the scene at about 3:30 a.m. driving the same SUV Russell had, with a similar intention of extricating Lane's truck. An officer was still on the scene and charged Padgett for also driving under the influence.

Padgett was one of two men pleading guilty to the illegal entry and robbery of Alpine Mini Mart on May 23, for which he had received community service hours and a suspended 10-day sentence.

Police at this time do not have reason to suspect Padgett and Russell of complicity in the vehicle's theft, and the DUI allegations are incidental.

"We don't believe that they actually knew that the truck was stolen," McCloskey said.

At 5:18 a.m. WPD received another call from fisherman Mark Mitchell, who found the charred husk of a four-door sedan in the yard outside his home, near the Silver Bay Logging Company site off Zimovia Highway. The vehicle had been thoroughly burned at some point during the evening, but using a combination of VIN and license plate details police were able to identify the car. The sedan was found to have belonged to Angelika Hall, a retired resident.

WPD believes this vehicle had been taken before Lane's truck, sometime Monday evening. McCloskey reported the vehicle had been at Stikine Auto Works when it was stolen, and its removal was news both to the owner and the garage.

Describing the scene, McCloskey noted the deep treads left in the earth by its tires, suggesting the sedan had negotiated a turn at some speed before it came to a stop in Mitchell's yard. Determining the cause of the fire will be critical to putting together charges, McCloskey explained, which will help assign intent to the crime.

"If it was an accidental type thing where it happened, that's one thing," he said. "If it was intentionally set to destroy evidence, that's another thing altogether."

A fire marshal is being called down to investigate, and is hoped to shed light on the details.

"That's what we're working our way through now, is trying to develop all the information available," McCloskey said.

Just north along the beach from the Mitchell residence by about a quarter mile, police believe its suspect had then proceeded to the Lane residence, which is visible from the burning car site. It was from there the white pickup had been taken.

WPD has reason to suspect the two thefts are related to a third reported earlier on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. A red Chevrolet S-10 pickup owned by Levi Dow was reported missing from his residence. Following Tuesday morning's events, the vehicle was located that afternoon at 4:46 in the vicinity of Pats Creek Road.

"It seemed like there might have been some engine trouble," McCloskey said of the vehicle's condition. He said the owner is currently assessing the extent of the damage.

As already mentioned, the suspect in the case is still at liberty, with charges yet to be filed. McCloskey explained that motives will play a factor. From what they can tell, the vehicles had been taken with the intention of taking them for rough rides. "Basically running them to death," he commented.

"It could be felony theft, it could be joy riding. It all depends on the information that we get investigating it. It's hard to say right off hand how the charges will shake out in this," he said. "The big question for me is whether or not the car was torched intentionally or otherwise."

 

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