Sunday, July 26, 2009
When Mark Douglas Ledford came home on Nov. 29, 2007, to find a strange green Honda Accord parked near his house with the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition, he suspected trouble.
Who had left the car there, and why? What if something strange was going on? Shouldn't the police investigate?
Soon after, those questions got answered. But instead of helping uncover a crime, Ledford and then-girlfriend Asia Ward found themselves arrested and accused of one.
On Wednesday, according to his attorney, Ledford is scheduled to be tried on charges of auto burglary after having become another statistic in an Austin Police Department undercover program. Ward's trial date has not been set.
Ledford, 39, has a job at a real estate firm and no criminal record. He plays in local rock bands and has a tattoo across his chest that reads "To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required."
Ward is a 21-year-old woman with a punk-rock fashion sense and a fixation with classic zombie movies. She also has no criminal record.
So how did she and Ledford find themselves in this fix? According to them, their attorney and police, here's what happened:
'Get on the ground!'
The Honda was parked near the corner of Joe Sayers Avenue and Houston Street in the Brentwood neighborhood in North Austin. Ledford said he knocked on his neighbors' doors trying to find the owner, but no one knew anything about the car.
He figured it had been stolen and left there, so he called the police. According to police records, two officers arrived at 5:27 p.m. but were gone within seven minutes.
"I told them, 'Isn't it strange that someone parked their car there with the windows down and the keys in it?' " Ledford said. "Their answer was, 'It's parked legally. What's the problem?' It seemed suspicious to me, but the police were telling me they don't care."
However, the officers held back a crucial detail: The police had actually left the car there themselves.
The Honda was a so-called bait vehicle, stocked with an alarm, surveillance equipment and a tracking system. Austin police began their bait vehicle program in 1997 and say they have up to nine cars deployed at any one time on city streets. They simply wait for thieves to take the bait, and the GPS tracking units make them easy to find. Because the whole thing is captured on videotape, the evidence can help secure a conviction.
The undercover program produced 70 warrants or arrests in 2008 and 13 this year, according to Sgt. Oliver Tate with the Police Department's auto theft interdiction unit. In the past, Detective John Spillers has been quoted as saying the program has caught suspects as young as 13.
The police did not specify what the arrests were for, how many resulted in convictions or why the number of arrests has declined in 2009. Nor did they provide figures on how much the program costs. However, in 2007 the City Council received an $85,287 one-year grant from the state for bait car equipment.
As the parked Honda remained in front of Ledford's house, he said he and Ward began to imagine various crime scenarios.
"It looked like it was a woman's car," Ward said. "There was a bikini top or something in the back. The key chain had tacky things hanging off it. There was broken glass in the back seat, as if the window had been broken. And, strangely, there was also a pair of men's work boots and some rope. Maybe I've read too many serial killer books, but I thought it was a stripper's car and that maybe she had been murdered and the car had been dumped — maybe with her body in the trunk."
On a Saturday night — three days after the car had been left at the house — Ledford and Ward came home after going out for ice cream and a movie, and decided it was up to them to try to figure out whose car it was.
First, Ledford put on gloves. "I'm thinking, 'This is a crime scene,' and didn't want to leave fingerprints," he said. "I'm thinking, 'I've reported the car to the police, and they did nothing. It's time to get to the bottom of this.' "
They opened the car door and began a search, all of which was captured on the vehicle's video camera mounted in the dashboard. In the video, a copy of which was obtained by the American-Statesman, Ledford uses his cell phone as a flashlight to inspect the car's interior, reporting what he finds to Ward. He takes the keys out of the ignition and tries to open the trunk, which, unknown to him, is full of surveillance equipment.
The lock is jammed, which Ledford said made him even more suspicious, so he gets a screwdriver and tries to open the trunk again, without success. Minutes later, the couple are standing outside the car talking when a flashing light appears and a police officer says, "Get on the ground!"
Ledford and Ward were handcuffed; they waived their right to a lawyer. They told their story to the police investigator at the scene, Spillers. The police eventually let them go. The couple went inside, ate their ice cream and watched a movie. They thought that was the end of it, they said.
Except it wasn't. Sixteen days later, on Ward's birthday, the police came to the house with an affidavit and arrested them on a charge of burglary of a vehicle, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine. The affidavit, written by Spillers, notes that Ledford was wearing gloves to avoid leaving prints, and both he and his girlfriend "admitted to Mark getting a screwdriver and trying to get in the trunk."
The affidavit does not mention Ledford's previous call to police or that the car was parked near his house. It concludes that Spillers "believes this action constitutes more than mere curiosity or trying to locate the owner's information."
Neither Spillers nor the prosecutor, Assistant County Attorney Vicki Ashley, would comment on the case.
Ledford and Ward say they were offered deferred prosecution, which would waive any penalties as long as they sign a confession and don't commit a crime for a year. But they refuse to confess to an offense they say they didn't commit.
"If they want to charge us with trespassing, then fine, I'm guilty," Ward said. "But we did not burglarize a vehicle."
Bait cars are used in police departments across the country, and Austin police say the tactic is not generally considered entrapment because police don't actively encourage people to steal the car — they just provide the temptation. But David Crawford, Ward and Ledford's attorney, said he believes that this case is in a legal gray area because the police did interact with Ledford and Ward.
"If the police had said, 'Don't worry; we're going to keep an eye on this car,' then this would never have happened," Crawford said. "Mark only took action because of what he saw as the complete inaction of the Police Department. He was trying to be a good Samaritan."
Police officials would not discuss the specifics of the case, but Tate, with the auto theft unit, said that officers will often move a car after a resident calls about it. And Tate said there's good reason to sometimes leave the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down, even if it raises suspicions.
"It's about factors that we are seeing in that area," Tate said. "If cars are being stolen with the keys left in the car, left running, what have you, then we try to stay as close to those factors as possible."
Sgt. Richard Stresing, a police spokesman, said the cars are supposed to be deterrents. Many are supplied by insurance companies, which have a stake in reducing car thefts.
"We are trying to make criminals think twice if they see a car with keys in it or running outside a convenience store," Stresing said. "We want them to start thinking, 'Are there cops watching? Is this a car I should steal?' We would like to see auto thefts down to zero."
Crawford said he wonders whether leaving bait cars on the street with the keys in them could actually be dangerous.
"It's a completely functional car," he said. "They have no idea who could get behind the wheel. This was near a high school, so it could have been a kid. Or a drunk." (McCallum High School is in the neighborhood.)
Tate said he hasn't heard of a police department being held liable for what happens when a bait car is driven away. As far as the police department is concerned, he said, it doesn't matter whether it's a hardened auto thief who takes the bait or an opportunist who does so simply because a vehicle is there for the taking.
"Let me ask you something: If you see a car with the keys in it, would you take it?" Tate said. "There are hundreds of people walking by these cars, and they make the choice to keep walking. The bottom line is this: If you see a car that doesn't belong to you, don't take it."
That's a lesson learned by Luis Espada, the boyfriend of one of Ledford's and Ward's neighbors. Espada,who was 24 at the time and had no criminal record, said the car had been there for days — his girlfriend had also called police about it. Late one night before Ledford and Ward searched the car, Espada said he drove the Honda halfway up the block as a lark, then parked it back where he found it.
According to his arrest affidavit, that brief joy ride left him being charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle, a felony offense. It was later reduced to a Class A misdemeanor, for which he received deferred adjudication and is now serving 18 months of probation.
It cost him $5,000 for a lawyer, Espada said, plus $190 for each month of his probation.
Meanwhile, Ledford and Ward said their arrest has had a huge impact on their lives. Ward said she suspects she's already been turned down for two jobs and a volunteer position because of the criminal charge against her.
Ledford said the experience has made him more cynical, both about law enforcement and his ability to make a difference.
"To hell with being a concerned citizen," Ledford said. "You hear stories of someone getting mugged and no one gets involved. Now I see why."
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