About once a week, a vehicle is stolen in Citrus County. If you envision a thief smashing a window and fiddling with electrical wires underneath the steering column, think again.
More than half the time, the owner leaves the keys inside the vehicle, according to sheriff's officials.
"It's an open invitation to crime," said sheriff's Sgt. Chris Evan, who recently completed Operation Anti-Theft.
Evan and two other sheriff's crime prevention officers targeted convenience stores during the early morning, looking for people who left their cars unattended, unlocked and with the engine running while they dashed inside.
"It's actually against the law," Evan said.
Florida's unattended motor vehicle statute says an operator must stop the engine and remove the key when leaving the vehicle unattended. Fines of $71.50 may apply. No fines were issued during Operation Anti-Theft, Evan said.
Citrus County experienced the worst scenario of a car theft involving an unattended vehicle.
In November, David Khalil Mansour, 43, a suspect in a Pinellas County murder and bank robbery, stole an unattended car from a convenience store in Homosassa Springs. He was killed during the subsequent car chase on U.S. 19.
Evan said even if that case hadn't happened, Operation Anti-Theft would still have been conducted. The deputies found 75 vehicles in violation, Evan said. Instead of fines, the drivers each received an informational flier about the law.
In 2005, 56 vehicles were stolen in Citrus, according to the Sheriff's Office. Of those, 15 (27 percent) were left unlocked, while 29 (52 percent) had keys left inside the vehicle. Two (4 percent) were left unattended by the owner at a store.
The Operation Anti-Theft members - Evan, Cpl. Tony Boline and specialist Rainer Jakob - watched 12 convenience stores from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. on certain days in January.
Most of the people who were approached were cooperative, with some exceptions. One man, Evan said, crumpled the flier handed him, got in his vehicle and spun out, throwing dirt on a crime prevention unit member. Not a smart idea.
"We followed up with a letter," Evan said. "His attitude was incredibly hostile, and now we know who he is, in case he gets stopped again."
The most common reply to being approached by a member of the antitheft unit was lack of knowledge about the law. The drivers were given a flier with the law and other crime tips.
Some other replies were that the Sheriff's Office should find more serious crimes to solve; while others said their car wasn't worth stealing.
"Even if that's the case, let's examine it," Evan said. "One, the insurance company might send you a check, but it probably won't cover the car, and second, how would you feel if your car was stolen and then used as part of a crime where somebody else was injured?
"It only takes a few seconds to lock it," he said.
Sheriff's public information officer Gail Tierney said she was surprised 75 vehicles were found unattended during a relatively brief time span.
"I know that's one of Sheriff (Jeff) Dawsy's pet peeves," Tierney said. "He's out early every morning and stops at different places for a cup of coffee, and he'll also talk to people about leaving their cars unattended."
Jorge Sanchez can be reached at 860-7313 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.