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Two graduate students from California learned through the school of hard knocks that storing all their belongings in their car while on a road trip home creates a one-stop shop for thieves and that the chances of getting anything back are slim to none.

Jamila Benkato and her boyfriend, Levi LaChappelle, had just graduated with master's degrees in global and international studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in June were heading to LaChappelle's home in Michigan. Little did they know their three-hour pit stop at the parking garage under the newly opened City Creek shopping center in downtown Salt Lake City would cost them nearly everything they owned.

The couple's Honda Civic was packed to the roof with their entire college lives. All of it was stolen when their car was broken into, most likely never to be recovered. The estimated loss: $6,000.

Benkato had a painstakingly detailed list of items with serial numbers, which is very rare in car prowl cases, said Salt Lake City police Detective Josh Ashdown. Even with that information, Ashdown said, the rate of recovery on items in a car prowl isn't good: Police recover stolen goods or eventually find them at a pawn shop only about 5 percent of the time.

Tourist tragedy • Benkato, of Texas, and LaChappelle, of Michigan, are global and international studies majors who studied history as undergraduates. The two were on their way to Michigan when they decided to stop in Salt Lake City for sightseeing.

"We thought it was be a really cool place to learn some history and grab lunch," Benkato told The Salt Lake Tribune.

During those three hours, Benkato and LaChappelle visited the Utah Capitol and walked around City Creek and other tourist areas.

"Temple Square was really cool," she said of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' headquarters and well-manicured gardens.

While they enjoyed the bliss, thieves were making their way into the couple's car and loading everything into a truck, including their credit cards, passports, clothes, two laptops containing their master's theses, her birth certificate and Social Security card and a handmade, antique 90-year-old hunting knife. Fortunately, their professors were able to provide the students with copies of their theses.

Video surveillance from the mall showed a gray GMC Sierra pickup driving to the area of the couple's car, according to a police report. Another vehicle blocked the camera's view and the actual burglary, but police say the truck left the garage with "several large items" in the bed that looked like those taken in the burglary, the report states. The footage showed a white male driver and possibly a female passenger wearing blue rubber gloves.

"We just couldn't believe it," Benkato said of returning to the parking garage and an empty car with a broken window. "We just stood there for a minute just staring at the car."

The couple called police and an officer responded, but there was no attempt to locate the truck or ask other agencies to search for it because of the amount of time that had elapsed, according to Salt Lake City police spokesman Shawn Josephson. He said police initially had little information and that pertinent details came in several hours after the crime.

By the time the victims returned to their car at 6:30 p.m., after parking there for three hours, the thieves were long gone, and police had no idea who they were looking for. Around 7:45 p.m., police got a look at the suspect vehicle on parking surveillance video and later identified the truck's plate number, Josephson said. The plate was registered in Texas to a gray 2012 Ford truck, but the video showed a GMC Sierra. Josephson said there was no record of an owner for the plate on the truck, so no warrant was issued. The truck had been sold from a car rental company, and there was no other information.

Faced with a dead end, the case soon went inactive.

Leaving empty-handed • Benkato said they stayed in Utah for four days hoping for a resolution and to get their window fixed but eventually had to head home before they ran out of money.

While the couple were not hopeful they would recover the stolen goods, they assumed police would investigate and keep them updated.

"Come to find out later they literally weren't doing anything the entire time we were there," Benkato said. "We realized we weren't getting any updates, and communication with police was winding down."

Benkato said she was disappointed that only one of a dozen calls she made to a detective to inquire about progress on the case was returned. And that had to do with the insurance claim.

Josephson said detectives have "to balance when they call the victim back and when they begin the investigation." Detectives realize that each case is personal to the victims, so often they follow up on leads before returning calls to victims. Property crime cases are the most common in the city.

According to Ashdown, the five or so detectives who work property theft cases in Salt Lake City are investigating 80 to 130 cases at any given time.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of verified crimes handled by Salt Lake City police shows more than 3,600 people reported a vehicle break-in or car prowl in 2011. The analysis showed that about 34 percent of all car prowls happened in the downtown area or in Sugar House.

The bigger issue for Benkato isn't the lack of communication but how easy it is for thieves to escape prosecution.

"On a big-picture level, I believe this case speaks to a larger issue," she said. "Someone with an out-of-state plate can be filmed committing a crime, leave and nothing is going to be done to them."

Josephson said most property crimes are misdemeanors, and if a suspect is found in another state, most won't be extradited. The cost of prosecuting an out-of-state thief can outweigh the value of the lost property.

"A lot of misdemeanors, they [prosecutors] won't do an extradition [from] another state because it costs too much," Josephson said.

Josephson said items stolen in car prowls are often traded for drugs, so they vanish for good with no paper trail.

A records request filed with Salt Lake City police showed only two reported car prowls or thefts in the parking garage at 51 S. Main St. between March, when the City Creek Center opened, and August. Benkato was one of the two. One was reported June 13 and the other on June 29. Both cases are listed as inactive.

cimaron@sltrib.comTwitter: @CimCity —

Avoiding car prowls

Place things of value in the trunk before you park. Thieves watch people put purses or other valuables in trunks and then break into the cars.

Covering items in your car with a blanket may alert the thief that something of value is under it.

Hide wires and cords connected to an iPod or media player.

If you don't want something stolen, leave it at home and not in your car.

Source • Salt Lake City Police Department

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