Northwestern Ave. residents fed up with smash and grabs

by Tom Beck
Posted 1/9/24

Some 585 people experienced a car break-in – otherwise known as a "smash and grab" – in Philadelphia’s 14th police district last year. 

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Northwestern Ave. residents fed up with smash and grabs


Flourtown resident Bill Koroncai made his way to The Cedars House cafe at the top of the Forbidden Drive trailhead entrance to the Wissahickon for a delightful breakfast with his daughter on the morning of an unusually warm Dec. 8. 

But when the pair returned to his daughter’s car, what he found was anything but delightful: The car’s driver-side window had been smashed and his daughter’s purse stolen. The keys to Koroncai’s car, which had been placed in the cupholder of the brand new 2023 Honda Passport, were also gone. 

According to statistics provided by the Philadelphia Police Department, Koroncai was one of 585 people to experience a car break-in – otherwise known as a "smash and grab" – in Philadelphia’s 14th police district last year. 

“The window was in a thousand pieces on the seat and the floor of the car,” he told the Local in a phone call. “It was kind of startling to see it.”

That relatively high number would not surprise Tricia Dressel, who lives on West Northwestern Avenue, across the tree-lined street from where Korocai’s daughter had her car broken into. Dressel and her neighbors – who live on the Springfield Township side of the street, which separates Chestnut Hill from Montgomery County – are fed up and are organizing to do something about it. 

“This is happening so frequently,” she said. “You constantly bump into people outside who are really distraught and there’s glass all over the street.”

Footage from Dressel’s Ring camera shows perpetrators driving by cars parked along the otherwise quiet and leafy street, or in some cases stopping completely, in what appears to be an attempt to stake out a plan of action for burglarizing vehicles. Then, the videos show, they come back, break car windows and steal valuables from inside. 

“I have footage where somebody’s getting out of the car, they’ll pretend to take pictures of the horses [at nearby Northwestern Stables] or of themselves and then when the crowd dies down, they’ll peek in windows and pull on door handles,” said Dressel’s wife, CC Tellez, in a phone call. “They go all the way in the car and look around for whatever they need. Then they leave.”

Often, the cars that these thieves are hopping out of are anything but ‘beaters,’ leading Tellez and her neighbors to surmise that the crime must be lucrative. Sometimes, Tellez said, the cars are Lexuses and Mercedes-Benzes. 

In one clip that Tellez sent the Local, a group of people in a Dodge Challenger exhibited behavior similar to that they had seen thieves engage in – conspicuously slowing down in front of some parked cars before taking off again. Dressel said the cars often have heavily tinted windows and smoked-out license plate covers. 

While thefts from automobiles happen all over the 14th police district, which includes Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown and West Oak Lane, thefts in parking lots near Wissahickon Valley Park trailheads are especially common. 

The Philadelphia Police Department singled out West Northwestern Avenue, which is where Koroncai’s daughter parked her car, as one of three hot spots near park trailheads. The other two are on Valley Green Road and Kitchens Lane. 

“The vast majority of these thefts occur using force due to the offenders smashing windows and taking items that are in plain view prior to the thefts occurring,” said the 14th district’s police captain, Tanisha Williams. “These thefts occur when the vehicles are left vacant while the complainants are in the park on the trail, mostly during daylight hours.”

Districtwide, 2023’s total of 585 reported thefts from automobiles is up slightly from 2022’s 505. Despite the increase, police say the number has been on a general downward trend since 2015 – which is as far back as the police data goes – when there were 711 smash-and-grabs in the 14th district.

But West Northwestern Avenue has bucked that trend, police say, and the street has experienced sharply rising rates of such thefts – from just two in 2020 to 25 this past year. In the same time period, smash and grabs drastically declined at Valley Green Road between 2022 and 2023, going from 86 to 52. 

Williams said she attributed the decline of thefts at Valley Green Road to “apprehensions being made” by her police officers, although the police department declined to put a specific number on those arrests. She said that her district communicates with the 5th police district, which covers Roxborough, Manayunk and the western side of the Wissahickon, to combat the problem.

“Residents have been advised not to leave valuables in plain view during town halls, email blasts, signs in the park and during interactions with residents along these corridors,” she said. 

No security cameras have been placed in these hot spots, however, and that’s because the police department prioritizes security cameras for locations that have a high number of “violent crime areas throughout the city where shootings are the utmost concern,” Williams said. 

In her phone call with the Local, Dressel remarked on what she felt was a very “sad” situation.

The victims are “out so much money” in repair costs, she said. “And they have to deal with all that drama.”