In just a matter of minutes, while she went inside the house to get her phone, Catherine’s car containing the ashes of her parents and grandparents was stolen.
- ACT police say they have seen a rise in car thefts across Canberra
- Officers say thieves are “taunting” them, taking the cars on crime sprees
- Catherine’s car was stolen while she stepped away for a few minutes, an act that has left her shaken
Catherine was on her way out for lunch, and had tossed her handbag in the car parked at the rear of the house in Canberra’s inner south, before realising she had forgotten her phone.
While she was inside for only a few minutes her car was stolen.
In addition to her handbag, the car contained other priceless items, including the ashes of her parents and grandparents.
While the car was eventually found torched in Canberra’s north, Catherine is still hoping someone might realise the ashes’ sentimental value and send them back to her.
Catherine’s car after it was torched by thieves.(Supplied)
“You think to yourself, well how silly can a person be, leaving valuables in the car,” she said.
“But we’re talking less than three minutes.
“I’m that person that my friends make fun of, saying ‘oh you lock everything’. I’m a lockaholic.”
But Catherine is just one victim among many, according to ACT police, who report an increase in car thefts across the national capital.
‘It’s a multi-layered loss’
Australian Federal Police Assistant Commisioner Neil Gaughan said there had been a rise in car thefts.(AAP: Mal Fairclough)
ACT Policing have issued a warning to Canberrans, urging them to secure their cars and park them in locked garages to discourage car theft.
They said offenders typically targeted cars that had valuables visible inside them.
Many cars, including Catherine’s, are later found burnt out, in what police said was an effort to destroy evidence.
Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan hosed down concerns that insurance fraud was an issue in Canberra, but confirmed that thefts were on the rise.
“We’re not a small country town anymore, there’s a small number of repeat recidivist offenders who my teams can name, who we know are responsible for these matters and we are actively trying to locate them,” he told ABC Radio Canberra.
“We have definitely seen an increase there’s no doubt about that around stolen cars.”
Transport Canberra and City Services’ Sean Sloane said there were 1,461 reports of abandoned motor vehicles made to the ACT Government in 2020.
But thanks to legislation passed in 2019, authorities are now able to deal with these cars as litter, leading to fewer discarded on Canberra’s roads.
For some, the main cost incurred is in replacing the stolen vehicle. For others, the price is much higher.
In addition to the ashes, Catherine’s handbag also contained her passport and driver’s licence, and her childhood book of autographs that had value to her as a collector’s item.
The thieves also used her credit card to open a mobile phone account, and she is now dealing with identity theft as well as the loss of the car, which was found burnt out on Christmas morning.
Catherine had the valuables in her car while waiting to move to a more permanent residence.(Supplied)
Staying in Canberra temporarily while here for research purposes, she had put all of the items in the car for safe-keeping, not wanting them to remain in her empty house back home.
Then, due to complications around border closures due to COVID-19, she stayed longer than she expected.
While she waited to move into a more long-term home, the valuables stayed in the car.
“It’s a multi-layered loss,” she said.
“I had things in the car that I would not have in the car normally. It seemed that the safest thing to do was to bring them with me.”
Thieves ‘taunting’ police on crime sprees in stolen vehicles
A book of autographs, treasured by Catherine, was in the car when it was stolen.(Supplied)
Catherine said she had suffered from insomnia since the theft, and was easily startled.
“I realised later that I had actually seen the thieves, parked at the bottom of the driveway, watching,” she said.
“But I just thought it was someone visiting the neighbours.
“It leaves you with psychological issues that you weren’t expecting. Every time I go to the carport I get flashbacks.”
After alerting people online to the theft, she discovered her car was used in other incidents.
The car was seen being used to commit more crimes in multiple suburbs around the ACT before it was torched.
Deputy Commissioner Gaughan said this behaviour was typical.
“Unfortunately they like to taunt police and they get into a situation where they steal the car and then we are in a pursuit and the cycle continues,” he said.
“The car is dumped or burnt out and then they steal another car and we go again.”
He said the actions of thieves had far-reaching consequences.
“They cross the border and go into New South Wales and commit crime there for a period of time and then come back,” he said.
“They do put Canberrans and our officers at serious harm in relation to the way they drive the cars. We’re not going to pursue someone driving the wrong way down Northbourne Avenue.”
“I am incredibly sad that this good car’s last days were spent wreaking havoc on a crime spree that affected people badly,” Catherine said.
She said while the car itself would be covered by insurance, she still held out hope the other things might be found and returned.
“Although the thieves were known to have been at Hughes, Deakin, Curtin, Spence, Casey and Gungahlin, they threw my belongings out all over the place and these things might be anywhere,” she said.