Berkeley police use license plate reader in kidnapping attempt investigations

A trailer with a license plate reader has been set up at Willard Middle School. Photo: Citizen reporter
A trailer with a license plate reader has been set up at Willard Middle School. Photo: Citizen reporter

Authorities have set up a trailer with “license plate technology” at Willard Middle School to help with an investigation into five child abduction attempts in Berkeley since September.

An astute Berkeleyside reader noticed the trailer outside Willard last Friday and commented about it using the screen name “careful what you ask for.”

The reader, who shared the photograph that accompanies this story, drew a red arrow pointing at a small box mounted on the trailer, and identified it as a license-plate-reading (LPR) camera. The trailer is white, and also includes a 25 mph speed limit sign and an LED reminder for motorists that says “slow.”

Another reader noticed the trailer, which has a line of orange cones in front of it, and wondered about it on Twitter on Tuesday: “Why in the world did the city put this in the loading zone in front of Willard?”


Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats confirmed Thursday that the trailer “does have LPR technology on it.”

She continued: “We borrowed it from another agency to assist us with the investigation into the recent attempts to lure children into the vans.” 

Willard Middle School. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Willard Middle School. Photo: Nancy Rubin

There have been five child abduction attempts in Berkeley since September. Three took place Sept. 18, and two others took place Oct. 18. In all five incidents, the children were middle-school-aged, and most of them were female.

The first three incidents took place Sept. 18 as students walked to Willard, at 2425 Stuart St., between Telegraph Avenue and Regent Street, between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

One involved two girls on Telegraph near Stuart Street. In another, a girl was walking alone on Derby Street — the northern boundary of Willard — east of Telegraph. The other incident, on Stuart east of Telegraph, involved a boy.


Police noted previously that the boy, however, had long hair and investigators believe it’s possible the man in the van mistook him for a girl.

In that case, the vehicle was described as a dark green older model minivan, possibly a Nissan Quest with rear tinted windows. The man was described as Hispanic, 30 to 40 years old, with dark hair and a mustache, heavyset, wearing a brown-and-tan-colored baseball hat.

Five child abduction attempts over the past month have community members on alert. Image: Google maps
Five child abduction attempts over the past month have community members on alert. Image: Google maps

On Oct. 18, three girls were walking on College Avenue and Webster Street at about 6:10 p.m. when a man near a van yelled at them to get inside.

“The girls started to run away and the suspect started following them on foot,” according to a statement released by the Berkeley Unified School District. “The girls started to scream and the suspect got back in his van and drove away south on College Avenue.”

Police later received a report of a second incident about 15 minutes earlier involving a middle-school-aged girl.


Both Oct. 18 incidents involved a black full-size cargo van, without side or back windows. The suspect in those cases was described as Hispanic, 20 to 30 years old, with dark hair and a mustache.

Coats said, though the descriptions of the men were similar, police have not determined whether there is only one suspect.

“We don’t know for sure if it is the same person,” she said. “There are similarities, but at this point in the investigations, we can’t positively say it is the same person.”

Police also looked into a report from Albany about a possible child abduction attempt Sept. 18, but do not think it was related because the description was different. There was also a report in Alameda about a man in a dark green van around 8 a.m. that day. Police said it’s unknown whether that was related to the Berkeley attempts.

Coats said Thursday there have been no additional abduction attempts, and no new details to release about the investigations.

Police ask anyone with information about this incident to contact the Berkeley Police Department at 510-981-5900. Callers who wish to remain anonymous can reach Bay Area Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477. See safety tips from Kidpower related to abduction attempts. 

Related:
Berkeley Police announce 2 more child abduction attempts; new vehicle description (10.21.15)
Authorities respond to 2 incidents at Malcolm X School (09.21.15)
Berkeley schools on alert after 2 abduction attempts (09.18.15)

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