Waylon Pettengill remembers hanging in his dad’s garage working on custom motorcycles. His dad put him on a Suzuki 80 dirt bike as a kid and his favorite motorcycle of all is a sweet red Harley Davidson Road Glide that his dad customized.
Pettengill grew up either elbows deep in grease or riding in the wind.
“My dad built custom bikes and that was my exposure,” he said. “Hanging out with him, that bled into cars a little.”
As a kid, Pettengill said of he and his dad, “We rode just about everywhere.”
So it only made sense that when funding became available for the Westminster Police Department to place an officer on the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force (OCATT) that newly promoted Detective Pettengill was the choice.
Since being named “Rookie of the Year” in 2019 after joining the Westminster Police Department as a lateral transfer, Pettengill has been a stand out as a Patrol Officer and Field Training Officer.
The self-described “motorcycle and car enthusiast” had shown a particular skill and interest in tracking down car thieves.
“I had a knack for finding stolen cars,” Pettengill said.
Now, Pettengill’s professional interest and pastime passion have come together.
“We have not had a detective on the team for 15 years,” Pettengill said of Westminster’s involvement with the multi-department program that was created in 1993. “The unique thing is (the position) is paid for by the task force.”
Orange County leaders approved new funding for the program through a $1 to $2 increase in vehicle registration fees. Prior to that, the program had not received added funds since its founding.
The increase came as auto thefts have increased by 25 percent, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors estimate that, on average, thieves are stealing cars at a rate of “nearly one an hour every day,” according to a statement from the District Attorney’s Office.
“We’ve always had a high auto theft rate,” Commander Cord Vandergrift said, noting that with the downgrading of many nonviolent crimes, “people aren’t too scared” to boost cars.
A $1 million heist
According to OCATT’s stats, in calendar year 2019, 274 vehicles were successfully recovered by OCATT personnel worth an estimated $4,800,000. The average value of the vehicles they recovered was $17,529. OCATT detectives made 120 physical arrests of vehicle theft suspects during 2019.
In his five months on the task force, Pettengill estimates he has been involved in recovering at least 50 vehicles.
“It’s busy. There’s no shortage of auto thefts,” Pettengill said.
One of the most interesting, he says, was a Mercedes prototype that had been shipped to LAX from Germany for testing and was boosted from a hotel parking lot the night before it was to be delivered in Long Beach. Loaded with proprietary Mercedes technology, the car was valued at $1 million and didn’t even have a vehicle identification number or plates. Although the car was equipped with GPS, the GPS was only activated when the car was moving. By leapfrogging the pings, Pettengill was able to locate the car.
“We found it in north Long Beach,” Pettengill said, adding the task force is now hunting down the thieves.
Another form of theft that is climbing is using fraud and identity theft to either buy or rent new cars or rentals.
“Most likely those end up in Mexico,” Pettengill said.
Among the more popular cars stolen, the detective said, are Kias and Hyundais. According to Pettengill, they are easily stolen, with experienced crooks cracking through steering columns and driving off within 30 seconds.
The program also has bait cars, bikes and trailers, which are intentionally left in high crime areas. When crooks attempt to steal them, police are able to kill the power, then roll up on the criminals.
The task force also assists departments with various operations such as a recent takedown of a slap house, or gambling den, in Westminster. As Pettengill noted, car thieves don’t usually confine themselves to just one form of criminal activity. As a result, he said, it’s not unusual to net thieves and cars in such operations.
A natural fit
In addition to being in his wheelhouse of skills, Pettengill said the car detail fits his personality. When detective assignments came out, it was either cars or sex crimes.
The father of one daughter, Pettengill said sex crimes would have been more difficult for him to tackle.
“I think the department and task force will get the most out of me,” he said of the OCATT assignment.
With the third largest number of registered vehicles in the state – behind Los Angeles and San Diego – Orange County is a “target-rich environment for professional auto thieves,” according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
When OCATT launched in 1993, California was leading the nation as a hotbed for car thefts. That year, more than 20,000 cars were stolen in Orange County alone. OCAAT now has nine agencies that participate with 11 detectives, a lieutenant, a crime analyst and a District Attorney attached to the program. Pettengill’s focus is Westminster, Garden Grove, La Palma and Buena Park.
Thanks to his childhood at his dad’s side, whether it’s a valuable one-of-a-kind car or just somebody’s run-around vehicle, Pettengill understands better than most the bonds people forge with their vehicles.
“I have never met someone who had a car taken that didn’t want it back,” he said.