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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Spencer Smith looks over a car stereo left behind after two of his car windows were broken at his home near 1900 East and 900 South in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — As exercise-minded neighbors set off on their morning jogs early Tuesday, they noticed something amiss.

Windows had been smashed out of numerous cars parked on the quiet, tree-lined street. Sandy Underwood, who usually rises at 4 a.m. in anticipation of her 5 a.m. run, didn't even realize at first that her own car was a target.

"I came out early to do some stretching and a runner had come by and said, 'Your car just got hit.' She said, 'Your windows got busted out,'" Underwood recounted.

The woman told her she had seen even more broken windows down the street.

"'I already called police, because I'm nervous,'" Underwood recalled the woman saying, before explaining: "She's out here running by herself."

Two other runners told Underwood they were counting the number of cars that had been vandalized in the Yalecrest neighborhood near 1900 East and 900 South and counted as many as 52. A community council member sent an email warning that dozens had been targeted. Salt Lake police detective Rick Wall said the actual number reported to officers was much smaller — more like five or six.

"The number's irrelevant," Underwood said. "It just keeps happening. We've been hit three times."

In eight years, Underwood said her car stereo was stolen and other vandals busted a window in her Range Rover while trying to steal the rims from her vehicle. Thieves succeeded in nabbing one rim before her husband chased them off. The damage Tuesday was limited to the window, but she said it was clear someone rummaged through the glove box and center console. They ultimately took nothing.

"We need the police throughout here to help us out," Underwood said. "It's a big problem."

Wall said there is nothing about that specific neighborhood that would make it a prime target for vandals and car prowlers.

"It appears at this time that it's probably just a random act," he said. "For whatever reason, these individuals decide to do this."

In reality, the detective said similar things can, and do happen everywhere. He said it's happened in his own neighborhood and to his own car and will continue to happen as long as people leave valuable items in their cars.

"We know, city-wide, car prowls are a big problem and it's just because, oftentimes, people leave those items in there (and they) are very tempting to some people," Wall said. "We as citizens make it appealing by leaving stuff in our car. When people see items in their cars, it's a temptation."

Wall said that as long as the criminal behavior pays off by yielding money or expensive items, vandalism and theft will continue to be an issue. The solution is for each individual driver to better secure their cars and protect their belongings.

"That's really what it is," Wall said. "We need to take opportunities away from those offenders and not give them a reason to make us a victim of a crime. There are things we can do to prevent ourselves from becoming victims of crime. Things like, make sure we park in lighted areas, that we have cars well-locked, that we don't leave items in the car."

Rachel Manwaring, another resident of the 1900 E. 900 South area, was lucky. Her car window was smashed, but she said she thought to bring in her laptop computer and her wallet — things she doesn't always do.

Still, she said there were other items the vandals left behind. Her cousin left her wallet in her car and it was untouched.

"It was weird," she said. "They just broke in the windows and went across to our glove compartments. ... I think it was some sort of intense prank or something. I don't know. It's just weird that they just break in all the windows and don't take anything."

She said the damage to her vehicle was mostly just a hassle. It was also a rude welcome to the area for the 18-year-old who had moved there less than a week ago.

"I just think it's kind of funny," she said. "Like, what could possibly be going through their minds to break through all these cars?"

Wall said the answer to that question is anyone's guess.

"It's hard to get into the minds of these criminals and figure out why they do what they do and sometimes we never know why," the detective said. "Maybe they didn't find the items they thought were valuable or the things they were looking for."

Police have to investigate these crimes based on the offenses themselves and the evidence available. Still, the watchfulness of those in the neighborhood can go a long way, the detective said.

"One of the greatest things is to have your neighbors involved in what is going on, have your neighbors keep a vigilant eye out for people," he said. "If you see things that are suspicious, if you see people around, see a vehicle that doesn't look right, that doesn't fit, if it doesn't feel right, take note of that. Talk to your neighbors. Call law enforcement and see if it rises to that level."

None of Kerry Lehtinen's cars were targeted, but he wondered when the vandals struck. He didn't fall asleep until 3 a.m. and, even then, his windows were open. He said he got a notice not long ago advising those in the neighborhood to be alert, but none of that changed the way he saw his home of 13 years.

"Fifteen years ago, it was kids with sling shots," he said. "I think part of it is that there are so many cars on the street right now."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com, aadams@ksl.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam