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On a Monday morning earlier this month, Nancy Littlefield was getting into her car to head to her job at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center when she noticed something was amiss.

Papers were strewn about on her driver’s seat. The center console and the glove box were open, the contents of both tossed about.

She moved the papers from her seat and sat behind the wheel.

Then it slowly began to sink in: A thief had been in her car.

As she headed in to work, Littlefield’s mind was racing, trying to figure out what had happened. She usually locks her car doors, but figured she must have forgotten this time.

When she pulled into the parking lot, Littlefield, the hospital’s chief of nursing, remembered something. She had put some valuables in the trunk for safe keeping during a recent move to Fredericksburg while she and her husband wait for a home to be built.

She looked inside the trunk for the handbag holding an engagement ring, her mother’s 1949 nursing pin, a charm bracelet handed down from her grandmother and other assorted jewelry.

The handbag was gone.

The thief had made off with jewelry worth thousands.

Littlefield was saddened more by the sentimental value of the jewelry.

“I’m a very trusting person, but this has definitely shaken me,” she said.

Littlefield unfortunately is not alone. Many in the area have fallen victim to such crimes lately.

Thieves have been doing a lot of “shopping”—but not in area stores.

The crooks instead go shopping—a term inside criminal circles—at area neighborhoods and parking lots, primarily stealing such things as laptops, GPS devices, cash and checkbooks from vehicles.

There has been a surge of such thefts in Fredericksburg, as well as Stafford and Culpeper counties. Spotsylvania reports a decrease in such thefts, but the county’s numbers are still high—with 237 this year.

“We are seeing a spike right now,” said Fredericksburg Police Department spokeswoman Natatia Bledsoe.

There have been 93 thefts from vehicles in the city so far this year, up from 72 during the same period last year. In June, there have been 35 such crimes, more than three times the average of the previous five months, according to the department’s statistics.

Most of the crimes have happened in the College Heights area and downtown.

Through June 25, Stafford had recorded 278 thefts from vehicles this year, up from 151 during the same period a year ago.

The town of Culpeper has also experienced a recent increase in thefts from vehicles. In the past two months there, crooks have targeted the Lakeview neighborhood, breaking into seven vehicles. The problem is not just a local issue.

“This upward trend is not unique to Stafford County,” the Stafford Sheriff’s Office noted in a recent release announcing a new campaign to fight the thefts. “It is recognized as a regional and nationwide trend.”

Thefts from vehicles are lucrative. According to the Virginia State Police, in 2011 there were 31,964 thefts from vehicles statewide with a loss of $20.5 million.

Police have made some arrests in local vehicle break-ins this year, but not in cases from the recent surge.

Bledsoe noted that the thieves often hit a bunch of vehicles at a time. They also appear to be familiar with the areas that have been hit, so they could live in the area, or be relatives of nearby residents.

The Stafford Sheriff’s Office has been posting an electronic message sign along highly traveled roads warning residents of the spike in vehicle break-ins.

There has been a 45 percent increase in larcenies so far this year in Stafford, and the Sheriff’s Office attributes most of that to vehicle burglaries, primarily of unlocked vehicles.

That is the common theme of these crimes, police officials said.

“Ninety-five percent of the thefts from vehicles, there is no break-in,” Bledsoe said. “They’re simply opening doors.”

Culpeper Police Department spokesman Wally Bunker said there is a simple solution to quelling most of these crimes.

“Lock the doors,” he said. “Hide the goodies.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436




I always look out the second-floor bathroom window when I’m up in the middle of the night. I usually don’t see anything unusual. Last week I did.

About 3:30 a.m., I saw people on the sidewalk in front of the house. I watched as four men approached on foot, one after the other in single file.

When they got to the entrance to the townhouse complex where I live, they turned left into the parking lot. Then, as if on command, they silently split up. Two of them went to one side of the parking lot, and two went to the other side.

The two closest to me split again. One went to a Toyota parked at the corner of the lot, and the other went to the Nissan beside it. I watched as they crouched to try the driver’s-side doors and peer into the cars.

“We’re being robbed!” I blurted.

I put on some shorts and ran downstairs. By the time I got outside, the four of them had reached my house.

“What are you guys doing?” I shouted.

“Partying,” replied one.

“No, you’re breaking into cars. I saw you!”

“Partying,” the same guy repeated.

They were in their early 20s and very calm, unconcerned about me or my allegation. They never stopped walking, headed across the parking lot toward the second entrance at the other end of the complex. They never broke into a run. A city policeman arrived a few minutes later and checked the cars in our lot. All were locked; none had been disturbed.

When I think about the incident now, I am surprised at how practiced the robbers seemed, as if they were members of a precision drill team.

That weekend and in the days that followed, the city police received a dozen reports of thefts or attempted thefts from cars. Cars were hit on Mortimer Avenue, Maury Street, Prince Edward Street, Mary Ball Street, Hanson Avenue, Cornell Street, Hanover Street, Moncure Street and Bright Street.

“Almost all of the vehicles were unlocked and parked in front of the owners’ homes or in their driveways,” wrote Natatia Bledsoe, city police spokeswoman, in her City Police Report blog on fredericks “Most contained some sort of portable item that could easily be sold or bartered for cash or drugs.”

I believe that I saw the people responsible for at least some of these thefts. They were a four-man crime wave.

Jim Hall: 540/374-5433