Kyla Wagner turned her back on her idling 2011 Toyota Camry for only two minutes last weekend. When she turned around, a strange woman had climbed into her driver's seat.
Wagner, 31, was outside an apartment building on 26th Street and Colfax Avenue S. in Minneapolis preparing to drop her kids off with their father, standing near the car as the stereo played out the open windows. You're not about to take my car, she thought, grabbing for the rear door. Wagner recalled seeing the thief look back at her and grin as she veered sharply forward and sped away, sending Wagner flailing to the street.
Wagner was in the process of moving and her car was full of memorabilia that belonged to her recently deceased dad, along with her kid's car seat and her phone.
"Everything was in there," she said.
In Minneapolis, stories of car thefts — including brazen ones like Wagner's — are more common than ever, especially in the city's southern half, where nearly two-thirds of reports have originated. As of July 16, about 4,700 vehicles were reported stolen across the city in 2023 — roughly 24 per day — according to data tracked by the Minneapolis Police Department. That marks a 70% increase from this time in 2022 and double the average of the past three years by July.
At this pace, Minneapolis is on track to blow past last year's record-high 6,100 car thefts.
Across the river, a different story is unfolding. This past week, law enforcement leaders in St. Paul celebrated a 32% decline in car thefts from a year ago and an estimated $6.8 million worth of recovered vehicles since September 2021. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher attributes these results to proactive policing tactics aimed at taking the most prolific thieves off the streets.
"We've focused on the repeat offenders, and when I say repeat — these kids are stealing cars every day, sometimes several," Fletcher said. "If you want to curb crime and reduce the amount of offenses, you need to target the individuals who are doing it on a regular basis."
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Kias and Hyundais continue to be the preferred models among thieves, accounting for 63% and 40%, respectively, of vehicles reported stolen, according to data tracked by both cities. This trend, authorities say, is partly fueled by the popularity of the Kia Boyz— a loosely affiliated group of teenagers who post videos of themselves stealing cars to TikTok for clout. Earlier this year, Kia and Hyundai agreed to pay $200 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of roughly 9 million customers for design flaws they say makes it too easy to steal their cars.
In Minneapolis, the surge in car thefts comes in defiance of more positive crime trends. Homicides, robberies and other thefts are all down markedly from last year, according to Minneapolis data. Even carjackings, the more violent cousin of car thefts, have dropped 45% from the same time in 2022, a respite from the historic highs that began sweeping the metro area in 2020.
Though by nature less violent than carjackings, auto thefts can also lead to carnage. Stolen cars are used in high-speed gunfights, as getaway vehicles for robberies and in street races. The prevalence of young thieves — many too young for a license — driving recklessly has on several occasions ended tragically for the people inside the stolen cars and others in their paths. Last Tuesday night, a stolen Hyundai smashed into a '64 Chevy Impala convertible at N. Washington and 22nd avenues, killing 55-year-old driver Andrew W. Hyde.
By the time police arrived, the driver had bailed from the Hyundai and run off.
'Drive it like you stole it'
Last Wednesday afternoon, Ramsey County Sheriff's Investigator Kyle Williams prowled through the side streets of St. Paul's North End neighborhood in an unmarked Ford F-150, searching for something he can't quite define. It might be a car with a broken window, or a license plate bent to obscure detection from automatic readers. It could be the shimmy of a steering wheel and light screech of tires — a swaggering fishtail maneuver he says is a signature of the Kia Boyz.
"You hear the term 'drive it like you stole it,' " he said. "Well, it totally exists for a reason."
Williams, a 33-year-old St. Paul native, is part of Ramsey County's Carjacking and Auto Theft (CAT) unit — a team of eight deputies and analysts created two years ago in response to the rise in stolen vehicles. The CAT unit, which this month received a Minnesota Department of Commerce grant that will fund it through 2025, is largely responsible for why St. Paul is seeing starkly more promising trends than its neighbor to the west, according to Fletcher, who is in charge of the team.
Of the 260 arrests the CAT team has made since its September 2021 inception, Fletcher said three-quarters of the suspects are under 18 — some as young as 11 — and about 60 are "repeat offenders," meaning they've been arrested five to 15 times. The CAT team's goal, he said, is to get the teenagers into rehabilitative programming before they graduate to "career criminals."
Williams also holds the title of "youth intervention liaison," and part of his job is to help young people find a new path after they're arrested. But the juvenile system is tricky, and an arrest doesn't always stick.
"You talk about repeat offenders," said investigative analyst Francois Yang, pulling a hefty file from his desk drawer that he said contains reports on 25 stolen cars. "This is just one kid."
Unlike Minneapolis, Ramsey County doesn't have restrictions on pursuing nonviolent suspects. Last month, the CAT team helped arrest seven teenagers after a chase led into Hudson, Wis. But members of the unit say they prefer the element of surprise. They can track a stolen car's GPS through an iPad in the glove box, or by shooting a tracker called a "puck" onto the vehicle from 10 feet away, and follow from afar until an opportune moment arrives to box in the vehicle.
Their adversaries are always innovating. Williams said some have learned how to manipulate a car's GPS system to throw off its location.
"I don't use the word 'smart,' because if they were smart they wouldn't be out here doing what they're doing," Williams said. "But they're savvy. They're clever."
As the CAT unit roved through St. Paul on Wednesday, Deputy Nicolle Sparks announced over the radio she'd spotted a vehicle listed as stolen. Williams gunned the truck, flipped on his sirens and jumped a curb, heading off the suspect as he bounded on foot through a front yard and as his colleagues closed in with handcuffs.
In Minneapolis, police chief is 'hopeful'
Car thieves move fast. A vehicle stolen in Minneapolis can find its way to St. Paul within a few minutes, and vice versa, so the CAT unit is frequently leaving the borders of Ramsey County in pursuit of a suspect.
Fletcher said he asked Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara if his department would join the CAT team, but he's not sure if O'Hara can spare the manpower with staffing still hundreds below what it was in 2019.
In contrast to Ramsey County, O'Hara said Minneapolis currently has only one officer dedicated full time to auto thefts. Instead, the department relies on tactics like bait cars — vehicles monitored by police and left intentionally vulnerable — and triages cases involving repeat suspects.
O'Hara said car theft in the Twin Cities looks different from what he saw as a police officer in Newark, N.J., where stolen vehicles were sold at the ports and shipped overseas for profit. "I don't see this here as a moneymaking thing," he said.
Both O'Hara and Fletcher say car thieves are often involved in more dangerous behavior. In order to keep other crimes trending downward, they see it as critical to stop perpetrators before they hurt of kill someone — or wind up dead themselves.
In January, Minneapolis police responded to a crash report on the 4000 block of Dupont Ave N. and found a stolen Kia lodged in a snow bank, a teenager shot to death in the driver's seat.
Last month, police arrested a 12-year-old who pancaked a bus shelter and sent a man waiting for Metro Transit, along with several teenage occupants of the car, to the hospital. The stolen Kia had been reportedly tied to an armed robbery and two attempted carjackings that day.
Earlier this year, O'Hara instructed officers to start requesting that underage suspects be held in custody until a judge can review their cases, rather than releasing them pending charges. Last month, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty's office announced a new collaboration with local police to work with families of minors involved in car thefts and divert the young perpetrators toward community resources. If a youth is released from custody, Moriarty's office pledged to expedite charging decisions in those cases within 24 hours.
O'Hara said he's seen some early signs of progress. Car thefts are down in three out of five Minneapolis precincts this month.
"I'm hopeful that the word is getting out, because I think a lot of these kids just don't understand the seriousness of this behavior," said O'Hara. "I'm hopeful we're starting to take the fun out of this to them."