It wasn't just the garden gloves the suspects put on before getting into a car that alerted police to a particularly brazen case of auto...

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It wasn’t just the garden gloves the suspects put on before getting into a car that alerted police to a particularly brazen case of auto theft.

A deputy prosecutor had a hunch that the two men and one woman appearing in King County Superior Court on another auto-theft case might still be stealing cars. He alerted police, who later spotted the three in a parking lot near the courthouse.

The officer watched as the two men put on garden gloves and got in a white Subaru and the woman climbed into the back. The officer checked and found the car had been reported stolen. The three were arrested.

This kind of extra vigilance, along with speeded-up charges and longer sentences, has paid off in the fight against car theft, King County prosecutors said Tuesday.

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, car theft in the county declined by about 33 percent compared with the same period in 2005, when prosecutors began cracking down. That’s almost 4,500 fewer stolen cars, said Acting Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

A new sentencing law took effect July 22, giving chronic car thieves longer terms. First-time thieves can get zero to 90 days, three to eight months for a second theft and 17 to 22 months in prison for a third. But after that, they can face a four- or five-year sentence.

“It’s not rocket science to figure out a small number of thieves are responsible for a huge number of car thefts,” Satterberg said.

One such thief — Liam Moynihan, 23, of Seattle — claimed he had stolen 136 cars in King County in six months. He was sentenced in December to nine years in prison on 25 counts of first-degree theft.

When the prosecutor’s office began cracking down on car thefts in 2005, deputy prosecutors met with police and pledged to file criminal charges against car-theft suspects the same day rather than delaying the process, allowing suspects to go free and then requiring police to apprehend them again.

It’s been critical to the initiative’s success, Satterberg said: “Catch and release works great for trout, but it’s a terrible policy for car thieves.”

Seattle has traditionally been a hotbed of auto theft, with 9,253 reported in 2002 and 9,563 in 2005, according to FBI statistics. But in 2006 the number dropped to 8,147.

Bellevue, the county’s second-most populous city, has also seen a decline in car thefts, going from 606 in 2004 to 476 in 2006, according to the FBI.

In addition, bait cars armed with video cameras are being used to catch thieves in the act. But nothing compares with being mindful of the problem, police say.

“Car theft has been a tremendous problem in King County,” said King County sheriff’s spokesman John Urquhart. “We were just beating our heads against the wall.”

But the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng was instrumental in “bringing a renewed interest” in curbing the problem, Urquhart said.

On Sept. 25, Dustin Swanson and Bryan Huber appeared in court so Swanson could answer to a car-theft charge.

When Swanson drove off with Huber in the passenger seat and Melissa Swanson, Dustin’s wife, in the back, it was a matter of minutes before police pulled them over and arrested all three.

On Sept. 28, Melissa Swanson and Huber were charged with possession of stolen property and Swanson was charged with two counts of possessing a stolen vehicle and four counts of taking a motor vehicle, which includes theft of the white Subaru and three other cars prosecutors say he stole, according to charging papers.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or