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Car stolen with 3-year-old inside in Harrisburg, amid rise in auto thefts

A frantic hour-long search for the girl ended at the McDonald’s in Uptown Plaza, where she was found safe and unharmed.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A Harrisburg teenager was arrested Sunday after police responded to a reported car theft with a 3-year-old girl inside the car.

According to police, the girl’s parent had put her in the car outside their Harrisburg home and started the car. The parent left the car to lock the front door of their house. Then someone else suddenly got in the car and drove off.

A frantic hour-long search for the girl ended at the McDonald’s in Uptown Plaza, where she was found safe and unharmed.

“When I saw that little girl, I was very relieved to see that she was happy and healthy. It was an emotional roller coaster but it ended up the best way it could,” said Harrisburg Bureau of Police Sgt. Robert Yost.

Harrisburg police later found the stolen vehicle and arrested the 14-year-old driving it. No details were released on the status of the minor or whether they will face criminal charges.

Incidents like this are becoming more common.

A 4-month-old infant was in the back of another vehicle stolen in Harrisburg in December. That child was also found safe.

Auto thefts in general have also increased. Vehicle thefts rose by an average of 59% in 30 major American cities from 2019 to 2022, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

There were 16,000 auto thefts in Pennsylvania in 2021, versus 21,000 thefts in 2022, according to the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority (ATPA).

Car thefts are often a crime of opportunity, according to ATPA Executive Director Steven Wheeler. They’re more likely to happen when they see “owner apathy,” when drivers leave their keys in the car or the car on. In many instances, thefts happen so fast that the thief doesn’t even notice if there’s a child in the back seat.

The key to preventing car theft, he said, is diligence. If you need to leave the car—even for just a minute—turn it off, take out your kid and anything of value and lock the door, every time.

“We’re all in a hurry to do things but another two minutes saves tragedy from happening, because somebody is watching and seeing that moment as their opportunity to get in that car, particularly if it’s running,” Wheeler said.

ATPA will release its annual report on auto theft in April.

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