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‘Like 10 times in an hour’: Oakland’s Airport Plaza a thieves’ paradise

A man clad in black smashed a woman's window in broad daylight on Feb. 1, 2023, in Oakland. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“Look out for that gray car there,” a fast-food worker said while pointing toward a gas pump where a woman in a yellow coat was refueling a gray sedan.

Sure enough, across the parking lot at a gas station, a man wearing a black hoodie and face mask stepped out from a silver SUV and smashed the sedan’s passenger window, snatched a purse and sped away.

The sedan owner said, between sobs, she was heading to Oakland International Airport to fly back home to Seattle. She was unsure how she was going to get back home without her purse.

“It had my ID, credit cards, everything,” she said after calling 911 to report the theft. “I’m not sure police will do anything.”

A sedan's window was smashed by a thief stealing a purse on the passenger's seat in Oakland on Feb. 1, 2023. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The smash-and-grab incident is a familiar sight to regulars at Airport Plaza, a shopping center circled by restaurants and a gas station in Oakland’s southern industrial district. The Standard interviewed nearly a dozen employees and shoppers to find out more about the notorious car break-in hot spot.

10 Break-Ins Daily

One worker, who asked not to be named, said that she sees roughly 10 break-ins every day.

“Probably about 300 a year,” she said.

The thefts are brazen, happening in broad daylight often between 8 and 9 in the morning, a worker said. 

“It’s not gonna stop, because [thieves] don’t care,” a worker said.

Airport Plaza is in a quiet area with lots of parked cars near freeways, making it advantageous for window-smashing thieves.

Broken glass was scattered across the ground from a recent car break-in in Oakland on Feb. 1, 2023. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Workers said that victims are often driving back to the airport, meaning there is an abundance of cars with luggage and other valuables inside compared with other parts of Oakland.

“They’ll just open that door and grab people’s luggage, their purse,” a worker said.

The Oakland Police Department (OPD) acknowledged that the area has an auto-burglary problem, with the number being reported in the morning increasing. However, the number reported so far in 2023 is down compared with this time last year.

“Unfortunately, the area in and around 98th Avenue and Bigge Street has historically seen auto burglaries,” an OPD spokesperson said. “The Oakland Police Department continues to address auto burglaries across the city, with overtime details providing an increased presence in high-target areas.”

Signs warning shoppers are posted to the front of every business, but people don’t always get the chance to heed that advice, workers said.

Jihad, who works at Oakland International Airport, said that he regularly sees car break-ins at Airport Plaza. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“They’re doing it when people are still in the car,” said Jihad, who works at Oakland International Airport. 

Jihad frequents Airport Plaza after his overnight shift.

“Once I saw it like 10 times in an hour. Crazy,” he said.

Rental Cars Targeted

San Francisco resident Tyson Wrensch had his rental car broken into twice in a week in Airport Plaza parking lot, including once while he was sitting inside it.

Rental cars may be easy targets as people driving rental cars in the area could be on their way to or from the airport with their bags inside, and a rental car is easy to spot.

“Sometimes it’s the bar codes you see in the window, but also the white registration tags on the license plate are a dead giveaway,” said Sean, a shopper who works in window repair.

Several nearby rental car agencies were contacted for comment.

Suzanne, who was picking up lunch, said the repeated thefts were frustrating and suggested that police patrol early in the morning when there are more cars parked and thefts happen more frequently.

Signs warn shoppers to take valuables out of their cars to prevent break-ins and theft. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Officers do patrol during morning hours, OPD said.

But other kinds of crime happening in Oakland left some thinking that police may have bigger fish to fry than car break-ins. There were 122 homicides in the city in 2022, an outsize number for its population.

“Do you really think this article is going to change anything?” a worker said. “You think they’re going to sit around here all day, or do you think they’re going to chase down a murder?”

Garrett Leahy can be reached at garrett@sfstandard.com