Car prowlers branch out into canine crime
Stolen dog prompts concern over security in downtown garages
'Stolen Dog: Please help find Phoenix,' the flier reads.
On Dec. 28, the 51Ú2-year-old dog belonging to Michael Griffin and Tony Loeffler was stolen from their car at a downtown SmartPark garage while they ran an errand. They're offering a $500 reward for her safe return, with no questions asked.
'We don't have kids, and she's our baby,' said 34-year-old Loeffler, a Baltimore native who moved to Southeast Portland with his partner five years ago. The honey-colored Australian shepherd mix 'is our life. Every other dog owner says that, but it's true. We're desperate.'
With no real leads, Loeffler and Griffin have launched an extensive search for their pet.
And they've also met with the city's parking managers to discuss what they believe are inadequate security measures in the city's parking garage system.
'You walk in and see a sign that says, 'This garage is under surveillance,' ' Loeffler said. 'I don't know what that means. I park there all the time and had never seen a security guard until this incident happened. They feel like it's efficient É but I feel they should post their signage differently.'
The dognapping occurred on the seventh floor of the SmartPark garage at Southwest Fourth Street and Morrison Avenue. That garage, along with six other downtown parking structures owned by the city, are managed and operated by Star Park LLC under a new contract the City Council approved last fall.
City of Portland Communications Director Mary Volm was sympathetic toward the victims and said that SmartPark has offered $200 toward the reward money.
While police statistics show that thefts from cars are down 1 percent citywide over last year, they're up 19 percent in the downtown area.
Portland Police Sgt. Brian Schmautz says that could be related to the lack of funding to keep jails open. 'It's the property criminals who are typically the ones matrixed out,' he said. 'They are arresting the same people over and over again.'
And Volm said that based on anecdotal reports, there has been 'some increase' in break-ins in the city's downtown garages. 'We think it's based on the crime/meth epidemic that seems to be strangling us now, as well as the increase in street kids downtown,' she said, adding that incidents tend to spike during the holidays because of the increased parking downtown.
But she defended SmartPark's security and stressed that people must view the incident in perspective.
'This is a city downtown issue,' she said. 'It's not just our garage. We (the city and SmartPark) spend more on security and have higher security than any other parking structure downtown. We spend $300,000 a year on security, which when you're paying 95 cents (an hour for the first four hours), is a great investment.'
Heist happens in minutes
On Dec. 28, Griffin and Loeffler said they were running an errand downtown during a day off; they both work in sales and merchandising at a design showroom in Northwest Portland.
Around 1 p.m., they parked and locked their black Volkswagen Jetta on the seventh floor of the garage with two windows cracked open. They returned after about 25 minutes to find a rear window forced down and Phoenix missing. She had on the new light-blue collar she got for Christmas but wasn't wearing tags, Griffin said.
Police found no fingerprints on the window and guessed that the thief was most likely a methamphetamine addict or street person looking for a companion. The car two spaces down also was broken into, and a suitcase stolen from the front seat.
Griffin and Loeffler said they were shocked to find there are no security cameras in the garage.
Casey Jones, the city's SmartPark program manager, said the city had looked into installing cameras a few years ago but decided not to because of an estimated $500,000 cost to the garage system and because they can create a false sense of security.
'People see a camera and they stop being as vigilant as they need to be because they think someone will always be on the other end of the camera,' he said. 'We think it's not as good a strategy as actually having security in the garages.'
The security measures in place include foot- and bicycle-patrol officers who are subcontracted by Star Park LLC, signs that warn people to take valuables with them, and upgrades to lighting as needed. New lighting recently was installed at the SmartPark garage at Southwest 10th Avenue and Yamhill Street, he said, and four others will receive lighting upgrades beginning in July.
'We are very sympathetic,' said Star Park's chief operating officer, Virgil Ovall, noting that he is a pet owner. 'This is very unfortunate this would happen, but in any urban setting, people need to remove the valuables from their vehicles. It's not just a parking garage issue, it's a citywide issue.'
Ovall said he recalled only one similar incident in a Portland garage several years ago.
Dognapping cases happen all the time across the country; some have happy endings in which the dog is returned and the bad guys are caught.
But Griffin and Loeffler said it just seems like a strange thing to happen in Portland. 'It just seemed so unlike this city,' Loeffler said. 'People are serious about their dogs here.'
Indeed, the unusual incident has dog owners from all over the city rallying together, recalling the dog poisonings at Laurelhurst Park two summers ago that sickened and killed several animals.
'People that love dogs, we just all stick together,' said Yvonne Hanks, a friend and co-worker of the couple who's been helping with the search. 'A lot of people are choosing not to have kids. That's where they put their feelings. To think that anyone would choose to take a living creature. É it's sad.'
Help arrives from all over
While they are in limbo, Griffin and Loeffler are grateful for the outpouring of support from friends, strangers and businesses including Kinko's, which offers a 'lost pet' discount on fliers.
One friend set up a Web site, findingphoenix.blogspot.com; another has walked the streets with Phoenix's best four-legged friend, a chocolate lab named Lyla, to try to pick up her scent.
No luck yet. But Griffin and Loeffler won't rest easy until their pooch Ñ whom they rescued four years ago from a neighbor Ñ is home safe.
In the past 10 days, they've canvassed the majority of the city's homeless shelters, bridges, dog parks and trailer parks. They've consulted pet psychics and even driven to Mount Hood on a tip.
They hope that somehow, some way, their honey-colored companion with a white chest and sweet disposition will find her way home.
'She's such a sensitive animal Ñ a gentle, docile dog, and that's probably how it was possible,' Griffin said. 'She's friendly. She wouldn't bite. The only time she ever gets her gruff up is when she protects her yard from another dog. We have hope. Everybody assures us she'll be back. We don't want to prosecute. We just want our dog back.'