1st arrest made in bait car campaign, SFPD's renewed effort to prevent vehicle break-ins

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Thursday, October 12, 2023
1st arrest made in SFPD's bait car campaign
SFPD made its first arrest during its bait car campaign to prevent vehicle break-ins: 26-year-old Robert Sonza.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- New data shows that criminals break into 55 cars every single day in San Francisco. Viewers sent the latest pictures to the ABC7 I-Team of car burglaries that they spotted or, in some cases, suffered themselves.

But, some good news -- the SFPD says the number of car break-ins is down 5% from the same time last year, and they credit the use of bait cars. The I-Team's Dan Noyes has been looking into the first arrest in this latest "bait car" campaign.

Police sources tell us any arrest using the bait car will have a big impact -- that one criminal typically breaks into several cars in a single day. But you're about to see, even with an arrest, sometimes it's not long before they're back on the street.

This couple from Indiana won't be coming back to San Francisco any time soon.

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"And it's just sad," said Linda Oldiges. "It's sad to see what used to be a beautiful city, come to this."

Dan and Linda Oldiges were headed to a wedding in Sonoma County last month, but they stopped to tour Alcatraz Prison.

DAN NOYES: "And you saw Alcatraz? How was it?"

LINDA OLDIGES: "It was awesome."

DAN OLDIGES: "Fabulous."

LINDA OLDIGES: "We were in a great mood after we saw Alcatraz. You need to open it up again (laughing)."

DAN OLDIGES: "You could use it for something."

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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 the 15,357 other people who have had their cars broken into so far this year in San Francisco. They lost cash, a $1,200 iPad, and a $3,500 laptop. The police left a note telling the couple to come to Central Station; they had recovered their luggage.

"But they basically told us that, you know -- is there a chance for us getting our computers back?" Dan Oldiges told us. "And they said, 'No, your computer will probably end up in either Vietnam or another Asian country.'"

That happened on a Friday. Just three days later, the iPad pinged this 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 gonna hyperventilate. He was probably the strong one in this case -- because I, you know -- I mean, it was just devastating for me."

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Police say they caught the man responsible for the Oldiges' break-in: 26-year old Robert Sonza of San Francisco. The criminal complaint alleges, on that day on Sept. 1, he broke into the couple's rental car, another rental car, and a San Francisco Police Department bait car.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said at a news conference on March 23, "They may be breaking into cars that are put out there by the San Francisco Police Department."

The police chief announced the new bait car campaign, the week before Sonza's arrest. The I-Team was there in court last week when he pled "not guilty" and set a trial date, and we've been researching Sonza's court records in several counties.

Over the past five years, Sonza has been arrested more than a dozen times. He has convictions for car burglary, grand theft, hit and run, shoplifting and more. He was on probation at the time he was accused of breaking into the Oldiges' rental car.

Robert Sonza also has been accused of evading arrest on several occasions, trying to drive away but slamming into other cars, causing injuries, putting anyone on those streets in danger.

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On Feb. 2, 2022, police responded to the Japantown Garage for a report of an auto burglary. Officers tried to detain Sonza as the suspect, but he fled -- got in his car, ran over an officer's foot and hit a parked car.

Less than three months later, court records show that police tried to arrest him in North Beach. He was driving a stolen vehicle reportedly used in multiple car break-ins that day.

"The police sort of trapped him," said witness Patrick Rylee. "This is a one way street. They trapped him down there."

Neighbors watched as Sonza hit the two patrol cars, drove onto the sidewalk and took out a staircase.

The resident told us, "Suddenly the whole house start shaking. And my wife starts yelling, 'Someone just hit your Vespa.'"

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

The complaint says Sonza hit another patrol car a block away, injuring an officer and sideswiping another house. He made it to Columbus and Broadway, where he hit a civilian's car, injuring them. He left the car and ran into Chinatown where officers finally arrested him.

At first, prosecutors charged Sonza with several counts of assault upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon, hit and run, evading an officer with willful disregard, and a misdemeanor possession of burglar tools. In a plea deal, all the charges got dismissed except for a single count of evading an officer.

"I am pissed, pissed," San Francisco Police Officers Association President Tracy McCray told the I-Team. "There's no way a person doing all of that damage should be let off with just evading."

Sonza got out with time served in that case, a little over six months in jail. The police union president said deals like the one Sonza got do little to prevent future crimes.

"Why is it that, you know, we continue to give breaks and passes to people who just really are just showing, they do not want to do the right thing?" McCray said.

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At that same news conference announcing the bait car campaign, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins promised to prosecute car break-ins more aggressively. "That's what we are trying to re-instill in San Francisco right now: is that not only will you be caught, but when you are prosecuted, there will be a consequence for that behavior."

That's a start for Dan and Linda Oldiges.

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

DAN OLDIGES: "Well, it does. But then, you know, let's see what happens to this guy. Because you know, it wasn't his first rodeo, you know, it's a professional job. What are they going to do? Slap them on the wrist and let them out in a couple months?"

Robert Sonza's public defender declined to discuss his current case, or the previous ones. His trial is set for Nov. 17.

DA Brooke Jenkins released the following statement Wednesday evening:

"The San Francisco Police Department's efforts to address auto-burglaries and vehicle break-ins is showing some promise with good cases being brought forward with evidence that my lawyers can use in the courtroom to hold suspected burglars accountable and ensure that they face appropriate consequences. The SFPD's efforts will be helpful in identifying prolific burglars who have an outsized impact on the public and are overwhelmingly responsible for a great deal of the auto-burglaries and vehicle break-ins on our streets. My office will charge cases responsibly and graduate consequences accordingly to ensure that burglars and would-be burglars know that these crimes are taken seriously and will be prosecuted vigorously."

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