Paul Giroux was buying gas inside an Oakland 76 gas station for his rental car, but his visit was about to cost him more than the $100 he paid for gas.
Unbeknownst to Giroux, he had become the victim of car-smashing thieves within seconds of leaving his car, even as his girlfriend sat inside the passenger seat. While Giroux didn’t lose any valuables, both luggage bags were full of clothes and his girlfriend’s medication was inside her carry-on, which thieves took.
The Standard witnessed a gray compact SUV pull up to a white Kia sedan parked by a gas pump at the 76 gas station on 449 Hegenberger Road on Tuesday around 6:50 p.m. when a man in a gray hoodie got out of the SUV’s passenger seat, opened the rear driver’s-side door and took two carry-on luggage bags before fleeing in the SUV.
And it was hardly the only break-in that happened that day.
During the six hours The Standard spent along a commercial corridor near Oakland International Airport, several businesses, local residents and two security guards said the area is notorious for car break-ins, often going after tourists who are caught unaware.
This commercial strip is not alone. Thieves frequently hit at least one other commercial plaza nearby.
‘It’s Really Bad Around Here’
An Allied Universal security guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said they had taken 60 reports of car break-ins in two months.
“It’s really bad around here,” the guard said.
The guard said they and six other guards patrol the area throughout the day and into the night, watching for break-ins at gas stations along Hegenberger Road between Leet and Edgewater drives, a nearby commercial plaza, a Chevron on 98th Avenue and the In-N-Out at 8300 Oakport St.
The guard said they take more theft reports at the In-N-Out than at any other location they patrol.
A security guard with Brosnan Risk Consultants who patrols the In-N-Out said they see multiple break-ins at the fast-food restaurant daily.
“On a regular day, I’d say five,” the guard said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are afraid of retaliation for speaking to a reporter. “On a bad day, I can’t even get a report in because it’s back-to-back.”
On Tuesday between 6 and 7:30 p.m., The Standard saw three cars with smashed windows in the parking lot outside In-N-Out and spoke to all three victims, two of whom said they were In-N-Out customers.
Cindy Varela, owner of Zona Latina Hn taqueria, says she sees multiple cars broken into at a Shell gas station at 285 Hegenberger Road, which is across the street from her restaurant.
“I’d say two to three a day,” Varela said. “Oakland is crazy.”
Sitting in Varela’s restaurant, East Oakland couple Jose and Sandra Lopez said they often get gas at the Shell station and see break-ins frequently. A recent article posed the question of whether it was the most dangerous gas station in America due to the high volume of complaints about theft.
“Even when they’re at the pump and [the driver’s] back is turned, they’ll go in through the passenger window,” Sandra Lopez said, adding that she has seen thieves take airport carry-on bags from that gas station. “It happens every day.”
The Standard witnessed a similar kind of smash-and-grab in February 2023, when a woman who said she was from Seattle and heading to Oakland International Airport was standing by a gas pump as she refueled a rental car at a Chevron on 98th Avenue. A thief smashed her front passenger window, took her purse from the passenger seat and fled in a compact SUV.
Shell employees on duty declined to comment, but a Shell spokesman said in an emailed statement, “We take seriously the safety of site staff and customers at Shell-branded retail locations and are concerned to see reports of these incidents.”
The spokesperson added that day-to-day operations of the gas station are not the responsibility of Shell and that the company has reached out to the site’s fuel wholesaler to “better understand the preventative measures they are taking and to determine if we can help to further address these issues.”
Workers at other gas stations nearby, including a Chevron and a 76 on the same block of Hegenberger Road, said they also see multiple car break-ins daily.
“It’s happened three to four times today,” said a cashier at the Chevron at 451 Hegenberger Road, who declined to be named out of fear of retaliation from their employer.
“There was literally six yesterday,” said Mohamed Ali, a cashier at the 76 gas station on 449 Hegenberger Road, the same station where Giruox had his luggage stolen.
A customer filling gas at that 76, Zac Darrow, said he works nearby and witnessed a break-in there in October while driving south on Hegenberger Road near Edgewater Drive.
“She was standing there filling gas, and this guy smashed her window and took her bag,” Darrow said.
Chevron said in a statement that the gas station on Hegenberger Road is independently owned and operated but added, “the safety of our customers at branded stations is Chevron's top priority,” and that the company is working with the station owner and local law enforcement to address car break-ins.
In-N-Out, 76, Allied Universal Security Services and Brosnan Risk Consultants were contacted for comment.
Targeting Rental Cars
The area is likely so popular with thieves because people heading to Oakland International Airport stop in the area either to eat or fill up rental cars with gas, typically with bags in their cars, according to the Allied Universal guard.
Thieves also tend to target unwary tourists who may not know about the risk of break-ins, looking for cars with out-of-state license plates or rental tags in the window, according to the guard.
“If you’ve got out-of-state plates or rental tags, you’re a target,” the guard said.
Several San Francisco auto glass repair shops and rental companies told The Standard in June they frequently see rental cars come back with smashed windows.
The Oakland Police Department said it has 14 officers assigned to do foot patrols in 12 identified high-crime areas, including those around Hegenberger Road and Edgewater Drive. OPD said it also has four sworn officers on those foot patrols meant to bolster community trust with police.
The department added that it has officers in police vehicles deployed around “high-crime areas” in Oakland for “targeted traffic enforcement” but did not elaborate further.
OPD also did not reveal how many officers patrol the area around Hegenberger Road and Edgewater Drive on foot or in vehicles and declined to say what hours they run patrols.
Oakland police did not provide statistics on the number of reported auto burglaries for a list of business addresses in the area around Hegenberger Road and Edgewater Drive by press time.
Oakland’s Public Safety Crisis
Complaints of frequent car break-ins come as Oakland grapples with a public safety crisis.
Undercover Oakland police officer Tuan Le was killed on Dec. 29 while responding to a burglary call at a cannabis dispensary near Jack London Square, prompting outrage from the community. Mourners and notable public officials, including California Attorney General Rob Bonta, honored him at a memorial Wednesday for Le at 3Crosses Church in Castro Valley.
Oakland has also been without a police chief for 11 months after Mayor Sheng Thao fired LeRonne Armstrong after a scathing independent report found his department failed to properly discipline a sergeant over a hit-and-run and for allegedly firing a gun in the elevator of a police building. Interim Chief Darren Allison currently leads Oakland’s police force.
A group called SAFE, or Save Alameda for Everyone, led by Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce Carl Chan, kicked off a campaign to recall Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price in August. The group alleges on its website that Price has cut staffing, refused to charge criminal cases and lowered sentences.
Mayor Thao is also facing a potential recall campaign after retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, a former member of the Police Commission, mailed the paperwork called a notice of intention that begins the process of recalling the mayor.
Oakland police data online shows there have been 170 auto burglaries, defined in California as entering a locked vehicle with the intent to steal it or property inside, citywide in the past 90 days. OPD data shows there were 9,092 reported auto burglaries in Oakland in 2022, a 7% increase from 2021, which saw 8,477 reported auto burglaries citywide.