Car thefts are on the rise in Norfolk. Some citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

Sherry Okamoto and buyback agent Nio Hollie search for a stolen car in Norfolk Friday, August 5, 2022. Okamoto came to Hampton Roads from California two weeks ago to help her son find his stolen car. Eventually she tracked it down, but before she got home, she made it her mission to find other people’s stolen cars. (Steven M. Katz/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Sherry Okamoto drove down Warren Street in the Talbot Park neighborhood one recent week morning and stopped to point at a burgundy Honda Accord without license plates and an expired registration sticker.

Okamoto suspected the car had been stolen and jumped to take a picture of the car’s VIN number so that the recovery agent she was working with could scan it. It’s a quiet residential area, but a recovery agent, Nio Hollie, had found three stolen or abandoned cars in the neighborhood the previous week.

With the number of stolen cars on the rise in Norfolk this year, Holly and Okamoto are among a group of volunteer stolen car hunters who have taken matters into their own hands. They scatter around the city almost every day, looking for stolen cars from a list sourced from the masses.

They collect stolen car reports from residents via Facebook groups. Okamoto estimates that she receives 60 or more messages a day from people in Norfolk whose cars have been stolen and who want them.

It’s just back and forth like a ping-pong ball,” Okamoto said. “One found, four stolen. Two found, three stolen.”

Holly has a scanning system in his truck, so he’s able to look up the vehicle’s VIN number to see if it’s stolen. When they find a car on the list, Holly calls the police if it’s reported stolen and law enforcement returns it to its owners.

“If it wasn’t for Norfolk PD, to go out and check all the advice we’re sending them, they wouldn’t be found,” Okamoto said.

The Honda in question was not stolen that day, but the plates were stolen from it, so Holly reported it to law enforcement.

Norfolk Police did not respond to a request for comment on the group’s efforts.

Okamoto, 52, fell into the role by accident. Living in California, she came east in June to help locate her son’s car that was stolen while he was with the Navy. While searching for the car, Okamoto contacted members of the local police scanner’s Facebook page, a group that monitors police radio channels and posts about high-profile accidents, who began telling it about other car thefts in the city.

The police eventually found her son’s BMW 3 Series, but Okamoto decided to stay put as her daughter-in-law, Lin, felt unsafe at home alone after the theft. While in the area, she thought she’d look for other stolen cars.

Car thefts are up 44% this year in Norfolk. In the middle of the year, 760 auto thefts were reported compared to 526 thefts during the same period in 2021.

To curb thefts, Norfolk Interim Police Chief Mike Goldsmith urged motorists to avoid leaving valuables, including car keys, inside their cars and not to leave vehicles running unattended. Norfolk Police have also warned residents who drive Kias and Hyundais that they may be at greater risk of theft. Concern is fueling the social media spread of a trend called #KiaChallenge – videos shared on TikTok or YouTube that purportedly show how to connect cars using simple gadgets like a mobile phone charger.

Police advise people with these models to purchase anti-theft devices, such as steering wheel locks. Holly said he’s noticed more Kias and Hyundais on their list lately.

With car theft rates on the rise, residents have taken to social media, begging community members to look for their cars.

Kate Horlock, 32, posted on the Police Scanner’s Facebook group when her Lexus was stolen in front of her Larchmont home in July. Her work laptop and some important documents were inside.

Horiluk is an elderly care worker, and not owning a car is incredibly inconvenient. She has to go for an Uber or have her fiancé drop her off the street from a patient’s house so she doesn’t violate patient privacy laws.

“I feel trapped,” Horlock said. “I feel helpless. I feel violated. Like I can’t be called by a family in distress, and only be able to jump in my car and go there for them.”

Hawryluk’s car was found nearly a month after it was stolen, and totally grossed out. She said several parts were missing, and cans of lead and blood were scattered in the car. Hawryluk bought a new car, an extra expense because she finished paying off the stolen Lexus.

This ongoing issue threatens people’s livelihoods, Okamoto said. During her intersection in Norfolk on August 5, she hoped to find a black Volvo that had been stolen from a firefighter.

She said the Norfolk Police Department, which is more than 30% below its full staffing level, can only do so much.

“Everyone helps,” Okamoto said. “It’s not just me. It’s not even close. There is a really big group trying to bring these cars home.”

One of these volunteers is Ann, who asked to be known exclusively by her middle name. She goes out every night from midnight to 4am looking for cars on the list. She says she got involved after someone tried to break into her car three separate times while it was parked in front of her house in broad daylight.

Ann said everything the group does is legal and safe — they don’t put themselves in harm’s way, and they’re not “weary.”

“When people talk to me about this, I say we are a civilian task force that helps the police…because they don’t have the capacity or the time,” she said.

When it comes to recovering stolen cars, Okamoto said she has her limits on the extent of her involvement.

“My son’s car,” she said, “I was going to get in and steal it again.” “But I wouldn’t do it with someone else’s car. I’m crazy. I’m not that crazy.”

While Okamoto organizes the group, they will have to continue hunting without it. August 5 was Okamoto’s last day in Norfolk. She left before noon to board a plane back to California – where her grandson was born early. But she will still try to help the group remotely track down and find the stolen cars.

“I have no doubts, as long as they need my help, I will be there,” Okamoto said.

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