When it comes to auto theft, Susan and Michael Gushue feel particularly vulnerable. For one thing, in front of their Brookland home the couple keeps a rotating cast of American-made minivans, which are notorious for being stolen with little effort. Worse yet, the Gushues have a stable of five children, ages 7 to 19, many of whom need to be carted to and from school and sports practices throughout the week. The hectic schedule of shuttle runs makes for plenty of doors left unlocked at the end of the day.

So Susan was hardly surprised to find that someone had decided to steal her blue Voyager minivan back in February. After all, someone had snatched the Gushues’ first Voyager three years earlier, only to tear out the back seats and dump the worn-out van in Prince George’s County—probably after committing some sort of crime with it, the Maryland cops told her. What surprised Susan this time around was the fact that the perps had failed to make off with the car. All they had managed to achieve was to partly tear off the plastic casing around the van’s steering column. It was the first in a series of unusually clumsy attempts on her easy-to-steal minivans this year.

“Someone was brazen enough to come right up to the front door,” says 47-year-old Susan, referring to her driveway’s proximity to the house. “But it was someone who didn’t know what they were doing.”

Indeed, ripping off a Voyager or any number of other Chrysler products hardly requires mechanical acumen (“Dodge Ball,” 4/2/2004). The minivan comes with an ignition system that can be easily dismantled with a flathead screwdriver, and any decent thief should have around a “100 percent success rate” when squaring off with one, says Detective Daniel Straub of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit. According to statistics from that unit, the Voyager occupies the not-so-shabby No. 6 slot on a list of the top 10 most stolen cars in the department’s 5th District, where the Gushues reside.

In March, about a month after the unsuccessful theft, the Gushues received another visit from either the same aspiring thief or an equally inept colleague. This perp went after the same blue van as the first, but he showed no more skill than his predecessor. When the Gushues found their van the next day, the already busted steering column had been mangled even further, but the van had never made it out into the street.

“They just sort of tore the housing apart more, because they’re idiots,” says Michael, who acknowledges that Voyagers have a reputation for being an easy lift. “They came back and just…pried off more parts.”

“It sounds to me like there are two factors,” says Straub, as he considers the case. “Either the individual was spooked and did not have ample time, or there is someone out there on OJT”—on-the-job-training, that is.

Susan, a math and science teacher in D.C. public schools, tends to think it was the latter. She has lived in Brookland for 24 years and long ago accepted the inevitability of disappearing autos, but she says she’s never seen such ineptitude behind the wheel of other people’s cars. “I think we have this new class of incompetent car thieves,” she says. Not long ago, Michael notes, he heard about how another Brooklander’s car was stolen but eventually abandoned when the perp ran out of gas. “Our old van”—the Voyager that was successfully snatched a few years ago—“was stolen by people who know what they’re doing. They had a plan,” says Susan. But the most recent thieves were people “who thought it was interesting to learn how to steal a car.”

The damage to the ignition and steering column this time around required a trip to the shop for about $500 in repairs. Meanwhile, in front of their house they kept an 11-year-old Dodge Caravan they’d obtained from Susan’s sister. An even more unfortunate choice than the Voyager, the Caravan ranks at the very top of the 5th District’s list of pilfered cars.

Last week, the Gushues played host to their third attempted theft in about three months. Their visitor popped the lock on the driver’s-side door of the Caravan and tore out the ignition, but, once again, the van was still sitting in front of the Gushues’ house the following day. By that point, Susan was annoyed more by the thieves’ sense of impunity than their ineptitude. “It’s like, ‘Let’s go van-shopping,’” she says.

The thieves might do well to find another driveway, at least to change their luck. When he tinkered with the Caravan after the fact, Michael discovered that the battery was dead. He figures either the perpetrator killed the battery by leaving a light on after aborting his crime, or, in a more likely scenario, he tried to steal a van that wouldn’t start to begin with.

“I guess you should make sure the car works before you steal it,” he says.CP

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