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Repo Cop

Retiring police officer a specialist at finding stolen vehicles Albuquerque Journal -- Albuquerque police officer Diana Smith is standing beside an older Chrysler with a badly damaged rear end and a New Mexico temporary license plate. She has noticed it for about a month, sitting in the parking lot of a Southeast Heights apartment building. Two women walk from the building, and one explains that the car belongs to her daughter. She says her daughter bought it in Juarez, Mexico, but got into an accident during a recent visit to Albuquerque. Something doesn't feel right to Smith. "If it was purchased in Juarez, why does the car have a New Mexico temporary plate, and why is the address on the plate the same as an East Central Avenue car lot?" she asks. The woman doesn't know. The vehicle identification number doesn't check out as stolen, but Smith remains suspicious. She will be back. A self-described former juvenile delinquent who stripped cars as a youth, Smith, 48, is now known for her quirky little specialty of being able to locate stolen cars. In fact, she recovers more stolen vehicles than any other APD officer. Casual clues that others might ignore raise a red flag in her eyes: A van with cobwebs in the wheelwell from sitting too long in the same spot; an expensive sport utility vehicle with a ski rack mounted on top and parked among significantly older and less pricey cars outside a dilapidated apartment building; a pickup truck with occupants who become strangely catatonic when she pulls up next to them at a red light. Smith isn't sure where her ability to ferret out stolen vehicles comes from, but you can't argue with success. Known to cops and crooks alike by her nickname, "Deedy," Smith recovers 15 to 20 stolen vehicles each month, though during a particularly active month last year she found a whopping 91, says Sgt. Joe Byers of the Albuquerque Police Department's Auto Theft Unit. "Most officers recover two, maybe three a month," he says. There are 4,000 to 6,000 vehicles stolen in Albuquerque annually. Just more than 1,600 have been reported so far this year, a decline of 11 percent from 1999. "I'm sure Deedy has something to do with it," says Byers. "When I'm not out on a call," Smith says, "I'm looking for stolen cars." She finds it particularly amusing when she finds stolen cars before they've even been reported stolen. "We'll track them down and call the vehicle's owner and ask if their car is missing, and they'll swear it's parked right outside. Then you hear them put the phone down to go outside and look. They get back on the phone and they don't know what to say." According to APD Capt. Ray Schultz, "Some officers just have a knack for certain things, almost like a sixth sense." But equally important, he says, is Smith's 20 years of experience on the streets. That expertise will be lost with Smith's retirement at the end of August. "We're definitely going to miss her," Byers says. "Not only does the department miss out, but the community misses out as well. It's really a shame." Smith has mixed feelings as well. "I'm probably not ready, emotionally, to give it up; but physically, I don't think I should stay," she says. Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. "I have symptoms every now and then, but I don't pay any attention," she says. "I still get some numbing and tingling in the feet, and there's the fatigue. I get really tired at night." Oddly, she notes, her husband, retired APD Detective Don Smith, was diagnosed with the same disease in November. "What do you think the chances are of that happening in one family?" Smith asks. His symptoms are more severe, despite the relatively recent diagnosis. Her husband's worsening health, she says, is another compelling reason for her to call it quits and retire to their Tijeras home, where the couple care for a menagerie of horses, miniature horses, peacocks, guinea hens, ducks, pot bellied pigs, cats, dogs, and a skunk. Troubled youth Smith was born in Montana and the family moved to Albuquerque in 1960. Her mother, Charlotte Kirkham, worked as a secretary with the Army Corps of Engineers. Her father, George, was an engineer with the corps. They now live in Oregon. Smith attended Highland High School, where she was first exposed to the possibilities of law enforcement. "I was a juvenile delinquent," she admits. "I got into a lot of trouble drinking, stripping cars, being a runaway that sort of thing." She credits Albuquerque police officer James "Jinx" Jones for giving her encouragement and direction. "He never arrested me for anything, but he caught me almost every week for one thing or another," she recalls. "We had regular contact. He was really good with teen-agers and really cared about kids. I had dropped out of school for a while and he encouraged me to go back and do something with my life. I just respected him a lot, and I think I wanted to be like Jinx. The other side wasn't working for me." Smith applied to the Police Academy eight times in six years before she was accepted. "Recruiting women wasn't a high priority for APD" when she joined in 1980, she says. The intervening years between high school graduation and Police Academy were filled with a string of waitressing and bartending jobs. Jones, 57, remembers encountering the teen-age Smith. "There were so many kids on the verge of going good or going bad," he says of the crowd she ran with. "We paid attention to Deedy because she may have been a little bit wilder and a little bit smarter than the rest of them. And she was never disrespectful not in front of us, anyhow." Jones, who officially retired from APD in 1988, now works part time doing background investigations with the department's Violent Crimes Unit. Several years after Smith joined APD, she and Jones worked together as detectives, doing undercover narcotics and property crimes "sting" operations. "She was pretty, and crooks would pay attention to her, so she could buy dope easier," Jones explains. "She was absolutely a natural. Certain officers have an innate talent to become great street officers. They're like natural athletes. Deedy was one of a handful of them." It wasn't until about 10 years ago, halfway through her career, that she began to realize her natural talent for finding stolen vehicles. There was no epiphany, no moment of clarity. It just happened gradually, led by her instincts and skills as a seasoned street cop. Those instincts and skills are apparent today. Smith rises about 4 a.m., tends to some of her animals and takes her time driving the old Route 66 frontage road along I-40 into Albuquerque. "I find a lot of stolen cars while coming to work," she says. After her 6 a.m. briefing at the Phil Chacon Police Substation in the Southeast Heights, Smith hits the streets. In between listening to her police scanner and responding to calls, she drives around looking for cars that "seem out of place." Slowly, she rolls through the parking lot of an apartment complex. "I've probably recovered 10 cars from this lot in the last six months," she says, coming to a halt in front of a black Hyundai with a broken side window and a missing license plate. She gets out to take a closer look, only to find that the car's radio is also missing. She writes down the car's vehicle identification number, and walks back to her cruiser. Smith cannot use her on-board computer to directly access information from computers at the National Crime Information Center or the state Motor Vehicle Division. Until system upgrades are completed, she will temporarily have to call inquiries into APD dispatch, which gets the information and relays it back to her. "This really slows things up for me," she says, plainly irritated. "Normally, I could get what I need immediately. Now I have to wait." APD dispatch gets back to her after several minutes. The car is not stolen. Smith drives on. A property owner named Jack waves her down and greets her by name. They exchange small talk and he tells her that an apartment building down the block "has a lot of cars that haven't moved in a long time." Smith thanks him and goes to check it out. She calls in several more license plate and vehicle identification numbers. None has been reported as stolen. Up to 30 percent of all car thefts involve what's referred to in the street vernacular as "clucking." The practice involves cash-strapped drug addicts who trade their cars for drugs. They subsequently contact the police to report their vehicles as stolen. "They use us as a cheap repo service," Smith jokes. "It's OK. It serves a purpose. It helps us identify who the dope dealers and the dope buyers are. Then we can keep tabs on them." And that's important, she says, because many crimes, especially violent crimes, are drug-related. The remainder of stolen cars, Smith says, are swiped by kids out joy riding or on a vandalism spree; people who take the cars to chop shops, where they are disassembled so the parts can be sold separately; and by people who steal a car to use while committing other crimes. All of it keeps Smith busy, but she isn't complaining. "I love my job," she says. "You're outside every day, and every day is different. I just wish that everybody could be as happy and have as much fun in their jobs as I do in mine. I don't even know where the 20 years went. All I know is I couldn't imagine having done anything else."

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