Like many owners of older Subarus that are ubiquitous in Portland, local artist Ursula Barton never expected anyone would target her unglamorous 15-year-old workhorse of a car.

She was shocked to walk out of the New Seasons on Northeast 33rd Avenue after a quick stop to buy sparkling water last Friday to see her navy blue 1999 Legacy Outback wagon being driven out of the lot without her.

Her car was closely followed by an older green Subaru wagon that police now suspect had been stolen from Downtown Portland earlier that day, then used to transport the thief to New Seasons.

Help find Ursula Barton’s stolen painting

Her car, valued at less than $5,000 but containing an irreplaceable painting and a laptop loaded with important files, was the fourth 1990s era Subaru reported stolen in Portland in a period of 14 hours.

All four were victims of a sudden rash of Subaru thefts, most from close-in Portland neighborhoods.

During the first 11 months of 2014, an average of 20 Subarus were reported stolen per month in Portland.

During December, 90 vanished. Nearly all were Subaru Legacy or Subaru Impreza models made from 1991 to 1999, said Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson.

Many of the locked cars have disappeared from public places or safe residential streets during daylight hours with plenty of people watching.

In nearly all cases, the thief doesn’t break windows or struggle to get the cars to start. Instead, says Portland Police Det. Chris Brace, the thief uses a so-called jiggle key, a worn-down version of a Subaru key shaped generically enough to open the doors and turn the ignition of most older Legacies and Imprezas.

Brace believes a staggering share of the recent Subaru thefts are the work of one man, possibly assisted by his girlfriend. Brace won’t name the man, but says he helped get the man arrested for driving a stolen Toyota back in November — and has since connected him to two stolen Subarus via fingerprints left in the cars.

How can I keep a 1990s-era Subaru safe?

Portland Police Det. Chris Brace says the best way to protect a 1990s-era Subaru Legacy or Impreza is to park it inside your garage or in a protected parking enclosure.

If that is not possible, he said, owners should use a security device such as The Club, which deters thieves.

Never leave anything valuable or that could appear valuable inside the car.

The police bureau doesn’t normally send a forensic evidence team to lift prints in minor property cases, Brace said. But investigators have examined several recovered Subarus in recent weeks. That is because Brace is so convinced one man is behind the burst of stolen cars — and wants to build the case so he can stop him.

“A lot of these are connected to that guy,” Brace said. “Evidence suggests he is heavily into drugs…  so he is going to make a mistake and get caught.”

Subaru owners who’ve walked out of their homes in the morning or out of a business at midday to find an empty spot where their car used to be are glad the police are trying to put a stop to it.

Nearly all the cars that have gone missing are at least 15 years old. Many are losing their luster. Most are worth a few thousand dollars. But they are perfect Portland cars: reliable, often with four-wheel drive and plenty of room to haul cargo.

Young working- and middle-class people who live more or less paycheck to paycheck rely on their old Subarus. Most don’t fully insure their dinged, high-mileage cars or have enough savings to buy a new car when one goes missing.

“It’s really putting us in a pickle trying to make ends meet,” said Karen Vitt, a Northeast Portland writer and editor whose 1999 Subaru Outback Sport was stolen from a residential stretch of Northeast Davis Street early on the same day that Burton’s was taken.

And the pain isn’t only economic.

Many Subaru owners have a deep-down love for their cars, whether for their good looks after years on the road, a quirky feature or the back story of how the car came into their lives.

Mary Calcagno found this black limited-edition 1998 Subaru Legacy GT with top trim for sale on Craigslist at a price she could afford. It was stolen Dec. 22 during a 45-minute window that she left it parked on NE Halsey Street just steps from Lloyd Center at noon.  

Mary Calcagno, 23, could not believe her good fortune when she found a black limited-edition 1998 Subaru Legacy GT with top trim for sale on Craigslist at a price she could afford. It was the first car of her own and she kept it scrupulously clean. Like many Subaru owners, the hospital receptionist talks about her car as if it were a human, not a car. “She’s a sweetie,” Calcagno said.

Three days before Christmas, Calcagno parked her baby on Halsey Street just steps from Lloyd Center at noon while she had a 45-minute lunch with her boyfriend. When she returned, it was gone without a trace.

Patty Flynn’s best friend died too young a couple years ago. So when Flynn moved back to Portland from France recently, she asked her friend’s family if she could buy her friend’s car, a 1992 grey and blue Legacy wagon with just 80,000 miles on it. “Not very pretty, but strong,” is how Flynn describes it. Every time she drove it, she felt a sentimental connection to her friend.

She was shocked, she said, to come out of her Laurelhurst home last Friday, the same morning Vitt’s car went missing, and find an empty spot where the Legacy had been.

“I can’t imagine what the thieves are doing with all the Subarus,” she said.

Neither could frequent users of the Portland Subreddit. They noticed as early as the first week of December that a lot of old Subarus were going missing — and started working hard to help publicize the thefts and hunt down abandoned Subes.

Calcagno’s boyfriend, Isaac Hotchkiss, eventually added a color-coded spreadsheet listing all the stolen Subarus that Redditers learn of, with details including license plate numbers, when and where they were taken and where, if anywhere, they were found.

After the list grew past 15 eerily similar disappearances, Portland Subreddit tweeted The Oregonian, requesting the newspaper look into what was happening.

Brace, the detective, has some ideas. In most cases, the Subaru stealers are not selling them or even harvesting them for parts. High-end cars end up in chop shops; not these, he says.

Instead, he says, most often the thief just wants a car to drive — to get from one part of the city to another, to use to while prowling for other cars to break into to steal valuables left inside, to store stolen loot or to sleep in for a night or two.

The good news about that, if there is any good news in having your car stolen, is that nearly all cars used in that way are recovered, often just miles from where they were stolen, Brace says.

Calcagno’s black Legacy showed up Sunday, almost three weeks after it was stolen, near the Division Street New Seasons in inner Southeast Portland. All the change left inside was missing. So was a homemade cinnamon roll. In its place: a used syringe, Chex Mix and food wrappers scattered all over the back seat and price tags from expensive clothes.

Like Calcagno’s, most of the recovered Subarus are grungy. Some are piled high with stolen passports, merchandise, briefcases and checkbooks. Some have fresh scrapes or dents.

But nearly all are drivable, without any evidence of a break-in or damage to the steering column — suggesting jiggle keys worked just as the criminal using them had hoped.

Katie Woodward, a Portland therapist, had her 1999 Legacy Outback wagon stolen from outside her home in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood on Dec. 19. She and her husband were sad that the car, along with a flat of new Mason jars and some books, was gone.

Three weeks later, however, Portland police called to say they had found the car less than three miles away, on North Lombard Street not far from the University of Portland.

It was full of other people’s belongings: empty laptop cases, passports, a credit card, some IDs, a checkbook, an empty bag of chips. A big plastic squid had been affixed to dashboard for decoration, “like they were getting comfortable in it,” Ryan Woodward said.

But once the stolen loot was returned to police and the trash cleared out, the car was in pretty good shape. A run-down battery and a few new dents were the only signs of what the car had been through.

Katie Woodward has a particularly Portland take on what happened: She wants the thief who stole and trashed her Subaru and others’ to find some peace and contentment.

“It’s obvious to me that things aren’t going well for them emotionally, mentally, socially, perhaps even physically, if they feel they have to take things from other people,” she said. “If the people stealing cars read this, I want them to know that they deserve to be happy.”

— Betsy Hammond

[email protected]

503-294-7623; @chalkup

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