Thanks to a series of accidental calls to 911 by an alleged car thief in Washington, police believe they've solved a rash of vehicle thefts.
The first call was made March 14 when a 911 operator answered what appeared to be a "pocket dial" from the Renton, Wash., area. "Pocket dial" is the term used to refer to a call made by a cell phone inadvertently, usually while it's tucked into a pocket or purse.
The operator asked what the problem was, but there was no response from the caller, said Detective Robert Onishi, of the Renton police.
It soon became clear that the caller had accidentally dialed 911 moments before he allegedly stole a vehicle.
The operator heard two men talking to one another detailing what seemed to their game plan. "You pull up, I jump out," said one of the men, according to Onishi. "I'll go jiggle a key, I'll be done in…37 seconds."
The dispatcher contacted police in the area where the callers were located while continuing to listen in on the alleged thieves' conversation - for 44 minutes.
During that time, police received a separate phone call about a stolen Toyota 4Runner in the same location as the suspects. Officials were unable to locate the car.
Four days later, on the afternoon of March 18, an 911 dispatcher received a call from the same phone number in what seemed to be another pocket dial.
"You're freaking out for nothing. They're not even looking for us. We haven't done anything yet," one of the suspects yelled, Onishi said.
Police again were unable to locate the suspects.
That night, dispatchers received yet another 911 call from the same phone number and could hear men chatting about stealing the rims off of a woman's car.
The police missed the suspects again, but they found a stolen car.
Dispatchers were now on the lookout for the calls when a fourth call came in two nights later from the same phone. A dispatcher immediately sent police to an apartment complex where the call appeared to come from.
A car was idling in the parking lot and a police officer approached saying that he was responding to a 911 call. A man in the car told the officer that the call was a mistake, Onishi said.
"He says, no there's not a problem here, but confirms his phone had accidentally called 911. He gives his name and information, and he happened to have a warrant for his arrest for a misdemeanor charge, so at that point he (the officer) arrests him," the detective said.
The officer alerted Onishi that he may have his pocket-dialer in custody and identified the suspect as Wesley Strom, 40, who was driving his own car at the time, Onishi said.
"At that point I went down to talk with him at the jail. At first he denied anything to do with stolen cars," said Onishi. "So I said, let me play you some audio, and I played him the 911 call. At that point he became very contrite and admitted to it."
Since the arrest, car thefts in Onishi's jurisdiction have dropped by half. Onishi believes Strom could have been stealing up to three to four vehicles a day, he said. However, police are still investigating the case to find out who the man was whose voice was heard talking with Strom on the 911 tapes.
Strom has been charged with two counts of possession of a stolen vehicle and is being held on $70,000 bail. Onishi said he has an extensive criminal history, which includes drug charges.
"I can't imagine this has taught him too much," Onishi said, "except to get a better phone."