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First arrest made in ‘Bait Car’ campaign, renewed effort to prevent break-ins by San Francisco police

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — New data shows criminals are breaking into 55 cars every day in San Francisco. Viewers sent the ABC7 I-Team the latest photos of car break-ins they spotted or, in some cases, experienced themselves.

But good news: The SFPD says the number of car break-ins is down 5 percent compared to the same time last year, and it blames the use of bait cars. The I-Team’s Dan Noyes investigated the first arrest in this latest “car-baiting” campaign.

Police sources tell us that any arrest using the bait car will have a significant impact: a criminal usually breaks into several cars in a single day. But you’ll see that, even after an arrest, sometimes it doesn’t take long before they’re back on the streets.

This couple from Indiana won’t be returning to San Francisco anytime soon.

MORE: Car burglary victim tracks stolen camera and equipment to SF, gets surprising response from police

“And it’s just sad,” Linda Oldiges said. “It’s sad to see what was once a beautiful town, come here.”

Dan and Linda Oldiges were on their way to a wedding in Sonoma County last month, but they stopped to visit Alcatraz prison.

DAN NOYES: “And have you seen Alcatraz? What was it like?”

LINDA OLDIGES: “It was great.”

DAN OLDIGES: “Fabulous.”

LINDA OLDIGES: “We were in a good mood after seeing Alcatraz. We need to open it again (laughs).”

DAN OLDIGES: “You could use it for something.”

MORE: After 15,000 car burglaries so far in 2023, SF leaders consider ways to end epidemic

They left the tour boat and walked across the Embarcadero to this parking lot. They thought their luggage would be safe in the rental car.

However, they joined 15,357 other people who had their cars broken into this year in San Francisco. They lost money, a $1,200 iPad and a $3,500 laptop. The police left a note inviting the couple to go to the central station; they had collected their luggage.

“But basically they told us that, you know: Is there any chance for us to get our computers back?” Dan Oldiges told us. “And they said, ‘No, your computer will probably end up in Vietnam or some other Asian country.'”

This happened on a Friday. Just three days later, the iPad pinged that location, in Vietnam, 8,836 miles away. And that laptop containing Linda’s work as a photographer was long gone.

Linda Oldiges said: “I thought I was going to hyperventilate. He was probably the strongest in that – because, you know, I mean, it was just devastating for me.”

MORE: Tourist’s car broken into near where SFPD announced new tactic to crack down on car burglaries

Police say they have arrested the man responsible for the Oldige break-in: Robert Sonza, 26, of San Francisco. The criminal complaint alleges that on that day, September 1, he broke into the couple’s rental car, another rental car and a San Francisco police bait car.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said at a March 23 press conference, “They could be breaking into cars provided by the San Francisco Police Department.”

The police chief announced the new bait car campaign a week before Sonza’s arrest. The I-Team was in court last week when he entered a “not guilty” plea and set a trial date, and we searched Sonza’s court records in several counties.

Over the past five years, Sonza has been arrested more than a dozen times. He has been convicted of car burglary, robbery, hit and run, shoplifting and much more. He was on probation at the time he was accused of breaking into the Oldiges’ rental car.

Robert Sonza was also accused of evading arrest on several occasions, attempting to flee but crashing into other cars, causing injuries, thereby endangering anyone on those streets.

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On February 2, 2022, police responded to the Japantown Garage for a report of a car burglary. The officers attempted to arrest Sonza as a suspect, but he fled: he got into his car, ran over a police officer’s foot, and hit a parked car.

Less than three months later, court records show police attempted to arrest him in North Beach. He was driving a stolen vehicle that was allegedly used in several burglaries that day.

“The police kind of set him up,” witness Patrick Rylee said. “It’s a one-way street. They trapped him there.”

Neighbors saw Sonza hit the two patrol cars, drive onto the sidewalk and go off a flight of stairs.

The resident told us: “Suddenly, the whole house started shaking. And my wife started screaming, “Someone just hit your Vespa.”

MORE: SF business owner hands out ‘Don’t break into this car’ signs to protect customers

Rylee’s Vespa was destroyed and he had to replace it.

The complaint says Sonza hit another patrol car a block away, injuring a police officer and sideswiping another home. He traveled to Columbus and Broadway, where he struck a civilian’s car, injuring them. He left the car and ran toward Chinatown where officers eventually arrested him.

Initially, prosecutors charged Sonza with several counts: “assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon,” “hit-and-run,” “eluding an officer with willful disregard” and a misdemeanor of “possession of burglary tools”. As part of a plea agreement, all charges were dismissed except for one count, “eluding from an officer.”

“I’m pissed, pissed,” Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, told the I-Team. “There’s no way someone who caused all this damage could get away with it by just running away.”

Sonza was released with time served in this case, just over six months in prison. The police union president said deals like the one Sonza got don’t do much to prevent future crimes.

“Why, you know, do we keep giving breaks and passes to people who are just showing up, they don’t want to do the right thing?” McCray said.

INTERACTIVE: Take a look at ABC7 neighborhood safety monitoring

At the same news conference announcing the car-baiting campaign, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins promised to pursue car burglaries more aggressively. “That’s what we’re trying to re-instill in San Francisco right now: Not only will you be arrested, but when you’re prosecuted, there will be consequences for that behavior.”

It’s a start for Dan and Linda Oldiges.

DAN NOYES: “Does it mean anything that the police were able to catch your man with their bait car? It worked. I mean, their law enforcement technique worked.”

DAN OLDIGES: “Well, that’s true. But then, you know, let’s see what happens to this guy. Because you know, this wasn’t his first rodeo, you know, this is a professional job. What will- What do they do? Slap them on the wrist and let them out in a few months?”

Robert Sonza’s public defender declined to discuss his current case or previous ones. His trial is set for November 17.

DA Brooke Jenkins released the following statement Wednesday evening:

“The San Francisco Police Department’s efforts to combat car burglaries and vehicle burglaries are showing promise, with good cases presented with evidence that my attorneys can use in the courtroom to demand accountability to suspected burglars and ensure they face appropriate consequences. SFPD’s efforts will be helpful in identifying prolific burglars who have an outsized impact on the public and are largely responsible for a large number of car burglaries and vehicle break-ins on our streets. My office will charge cases responsibly and grade consequences accordingly to ensure that burglars and would-be burglars know that these crimes are taken seriously and will be prosecuted vigorously.

Take a look at more stories from the ABC7 News I-Team.

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