When the suspicious-looking man abruptly turned as the Westminster officer drove through the parking lot of a local motel, the officer knew something was off.
“That raised a major red flag for me,” Officer Dan McCarthy said. “The last thing I wanted to do was chase after him because he was too far ahead of me.”
So McCarthy acted as if he didn’t notice the man’s strange behavior and exited the parking lot.
The officer staged his patrol car about 200 yards away, parking on an overpass with a clear view of the motel, and waited.
Eventually, the man came out and got into a car.
The cameras mounted to the roof of McCarthy’s patrol car scanned the license plate. An alarm signaling a stolen vehicle screamed at the veteran officer.
Thoughts raced, as they always do when McCarthy closes in on a stolen car: Will the suspect stop or try to run? Do they have any weapons? Is there going to be a pursuit?
This time, things went smoothly.
“He did everything you would want him to do,” McCarthy said of the Sept. 23 stop. “He pulled over right away, threw the keys out the window and put his hands up.”
McCarthy and other officers walked up to the vehicle’s window and saw a sock sticking up from the passenger side at an awkward angle.
“We didn’t even have to touch it to know that it was a shot gun,” McCarthy said.
Turns out, the driver was a known Santa Ana gang member and convicted felon who, police believe, may have been on his way to use that shotgun in some sort of crime.
The 41-year-old suspect now faces felon in possession of a firearm, stolen vehicle and probation violation charges. He is due in court this month, police said.
That stop could have gone very differently and vividly illustrates why Westminster PD considers vehicle theft a serious crime, McCarthy said.
“Many people think that cars are stolen to be shipped overseas and sold or stripped for their parts; that’s a rarity,” McCarthy said. “The majority of cars that are stolen are for suspects to commit more serious crime.”
Stolen cars are frequently linked to many other crimes, including burglary and robbery, he said.
So McCarthy stays on high-alert as he scans Westminster streets for suspicious vehicles that may lead to an arrest and taking criminal, like a known gang member, off the streets.
McCarthy can pinpoint the exact life moment that inspired his passion for recovering stolen vehicles.
At age 16, he saved enough to purchase a red 1979 Datsun pickup truck.
“It was a piece of junk,” he said. “But I re-built the engine, fixed the body, painted it and customized it like a 16 year old would do.”
McCarthy was proud of the red pickup with the hand-painted black and blue stripes down the side.
Three weeks after he got the engine running as it should, McCarthy’s truck was stolen from his driveway.
“I was devastated,” he said. “At 16, I only had liability insurance because it was all I could afford and I never thought something like that would happen.”
His truck was found at an impound where it was on blocks and stripped of its parts. He paid $300 to bring the shell home and later sold the gutted truck to a neighbor for $500.
Eventually, McCarthy bought a new car but the loss of his truck stuck with him, he said.
“It wasn’t the same because I didn’t have my work invested in the new car,” he said. “It didn’t have the same emotion.”
When McCarthy became an officer with WPD in 1996, he made stolen car recovery a speciality he wanted to develop.
“I wanted to try and catch the criminals and help people get their cars back so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” he said.
McCarthy has an uncanny ability to recover stolen vehicles, averaging about 30 a year.
He has been recognized for his work numerous times by the Auto Theft Advisory Committee and the California Highway Patrol.
McCarthy has many things he looks for when tracking for stolen vehicles.
Vehicles parked in strange locations or a car with windows down on a cool morning usually pique his interest.
“I always try and research our logs and look at what cars are the most commonly stolen,” he said.
McCarthy’s patrol unit is equipped with four cameras on the roof of the car that are constantly scanning license plates that enter their field of vision.
“The cameras can scan plates up to 20 times faster than a police officer can do,” he said. “It is automatically and constantly scanning cars.”
But McCarthy said he is careful not to rely too heavily on the cameras because he wants to keep his skills sharp.
“Even though this is great, it’s not a replacement for an officer,” he said. “It can’t pick up on something that looks suspicious.”
If a car is flagged as stolen, that’s when the excitement comes, McCarthy said.
“You go from having a really low stress level to feeling your heart just beating out of your chest,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Adrenaline spikes because not everyone pulls over so easily like the Santa Ana gang member.
Inevitably, there are those who try to outrun the WPD — McCarthy’s least favorite part of his job.
“If I had it my way, I’d never be in another pursuit again,” he said.
But McCarthy stays diligent in tracking down stolen vehicles and nabbing car thieves because he believes in the work he does to make the community safer.
“This is just what I like to do,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
McCarthy offers these tips for residents to prevent vehicle theft and vehicle burglary:
– Always park in well-lit and highly visible areas.
– Never leave any belongings in plain sight in your car, even those that are not of high value. Lock all items in the trunk, glove box or center console.
– Get to know your neighbors. A proactive community can help identify suspicious circumstances.
– If you see something, say something. Any kind of unusual activity should be immediately reported to WPD.