The moment Phillip Eldridge heard someone slam his Honda Pilot's door Tuesday morning, he knew what happened.
Eldridge, 47, had just walked back inside his St. Murphys Drive home after leaving his wife's new car to warm up when a suspect exited a Jeep Cherokee and jumped inside his Honda.
"I had just walked in the door and sat down when this happened," Eldridge said. "I knew they had taken it. I heard about it on the news — more of those incidents happening."
But Eldridge was determined not to let the thief get away. He chased after the suspect in his truck, following carefully as the driver weaved through school zones on Double Churches Road.
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Eventually, the suspect cut Eldridge off and hit his right fender after he caught up with him near Double Churches Elementary School, he said.
"My wife and I were just talking about how the first payment was due on the truck that day," Eldridge said. "And he knew I was following him. I guess he recognized my big red truck from the parking lot. I was bound and determined that he wasn't going to take my truck."
After the collision, the suspect swerved into the Double Churches Road CVS parking lot. Eldridge prepared to confront the thief. But before he could detain the suspect, the man punched him in the jaw and fled.
"For a minute, he was struggling with what looked like a pistol in his pocket," Eldridge said. "I'm glad it got stuck or whatever happened. I tried to chase after him, but he was too fast."
Eldridge's is one of several recent cases where victims leave their vehicles to warm up only to find them stolen — sometimes seconds later.
Columbus Police Sgt. Gerald Williams, of the Auto Theft Unit, said he receives 10 to 15 reports of stolen vehicles a day. Of those, about 50 percent are recovered in the following week. Many reports involve car owners who leave their vehicles cranked and unattended.
The trend extends further than Columbus. A Phenix City man was non-fatally shot Jan. 12 when he attempted to catch two car thieves that fled in his mother's vehicle. He also left the vehicle unattended while it warmed up.
"You make yourself an easy target when you leave your vehicle unattended," Williams said. "I've seen people get their car stolen from the service station when they run inside to pay for gas and leave the keys in the car. The main thing is to never leave your vehicle unattended."
Equally important is to remain alert while the vehicle warms up, Williams said.
"Get in your vehicle and lock it while your car warms up," Williams said. "If you see anything suspicious, call police immediately. There might an officer right around the corner who can keep you from getting hurt."
Some car thieves work in tandem to scout out neighborhoods for unattended vehicles.
Eldridge later learned that the Jeep Cherokee he saw his suspect exit had been stolen as well, in the same manner.
About an hour after Eldridge's car was taken, 18-year-old Jacorey Smith allegedly crashed the Jeep Cherokee into the River Road Elementary School fence, according to a Columbus Police report.
Police suspect Smith was ferrying the other suspect through neighborhoods, looking for more unattended vehicles.
Officers began chasing Smith at about 8:30 a.m., after police spotted Smith driving the stolen Jeep Cherokee. The teen allegedly sped south on River Road into oncoming traffic after police attempted to stop him.
After he reportedly wrecked into River Road Elementary's fence, he continued to flee on foot. He was apprehended near the intersection of River Road and Heath Drive and arrested at about 8:45 a.m.
Smith has been charged with theft by taking a motor vehicle, fleeing or eluding law enforcement, failure to report striking a fixed object and reckless driving. He was taken to Muscogee County Jail.
Williams emphasized that while the weather remains cold it's important to allow time for the car to warm up without leaving the vehicle unattended.
"There are people who case neighborhoods, who case parking lots and prey on victims," Williams said. "And anyone can be a victim if they don't stay aware of their surroundings."
And if a suspicious vehicle does come through the neighborhood, sometimes pretending to write down identifying information can deter crime, Lt. Bill Rawn said.
"Even if you don't have a piece of paper with you, if you just act like you're writing something down on your hand that can make a suspect think you have their license plate number," Rawn said.