Suspect sought in controversial van theft case

Social media sites have been buzzing ever since Matt Eccles’ attempts to recover his stolen vehicle began earlier this month, but the teenager he has been pushing police to pursue for the theft is now fair game for handcuffs.

A Comanche County District Court judge issued a warrant Tuesday for the arrest of 18-year-old Daniel Madison St. John, and Lawton Police Capt. Craig Akard said as of Tuesday, authorities were actively trying to locate the suspect, charged larceny of an automobile.

Eccles had already found his missing vehicle by the time the charges were filed, but the case wound up causing some controversy when he took to Facebook to bring the public’s attention to the investigation of the case, even posting a video of police officers apprehending St. John last week at Lake Lawtonka and then releasing him.

“He was being cocky about it, waving at me,” Eccles said. “I was told by the police if I encountered the individual, I was to call them so they could take him into custody. I did everything the department had told me to do.”

As the days went by with no visible action, Eccles said his frustration grew. The police knew who the suspect was. They knew where he lived. The tips were hot, but still nothing was happening. When St. John was released last week, Eccles said it was like a slap in the face.

“When there wasn’t anything being done about it, and the information was still hot, I decided to go to the media,” he said.

The ordeal started the evening of July 4, when Eccles’ surveillance system allegedly captured St. John climbing inside the van and using a valet key inside to drive away. Eccles released the video asking for help, and within hours it had been shared hundreds of times on Facebook. Tips came in to Eccles, the police, and even The Lawton Constitution received information that St. John was allegedly responsible, so Eccles continued feeding the information to the detective in his case. He received a phone call from a person claiming to have followed St. John in a separate vehicle to the lake, where he was placed in handcuffs before Eccles’ camera.

However, the officer called the detective, as instructed, and was told without a warrant he could not arrest the teen. As explained by Akard, the investigator on Eccles’ case was subsequently assigned a homicide investigation.
“The police did not find the vehicle that was reported stolen and the suspect was not with the vehicle when contacted. Until that point, detectives had been unable to locate the suspect’s whereabouts, therefore no case had been filed as of that time and unfortunately, the detective working the stolen vehicle happened to be involved in the investigation of (the) homicide,” Akard said in a statement Friday.

Eccles said he was told he could not make a citizens’ arrest because it had been over 72 hours since the crime occurred. Feeling frustrated, he went to speak with the police chief to no avail, so he wrote to a variety of news outlets and elected officials.

“This is the reason people don’t want to come forward with information — they think the police aren’t going to do anything about it,” Eccles said. “This is why people take the law into their own hands.”

Eccles said he never really cared about the van , he simply believes people should be held accountable for their actions.

LPD Assistant Chief James Apple said last week that police had presented a case to the district attorney Thursday, but further confirmation of the culprit’s identity was needed. At that point, Apple said police were investigating both the homicide and the stolen vehicle case and that he expected a warrant for St. John’s arrest to be issued by Friday. They simply had to prioritize the cases and didn’t have enough resources to follow the abundance of incoming leads.
Eccles eventually found his vehicle at an apartment complex at Northwest 64th Street and Elm Avenue. He said he and his wife went out nearly every night and looked in areas a vehicle could remain for long periods without being noticed. Friday afternoon, he had just started an afternoon search on his first furlough day off and noticed the van.

He called police to come process the vehicle, but again, nothing was done. Akard said Tuesday, when the vehicle was dusted for fingerprints and other evidence recovered, that at the time it was released, the responding officer did not call for a technical investigator.

“If we had been called to process the vehicle, we would have,” Akard said.

Despite sharp criticism from Facebookers, Eccles said he never wanted to attack the police department. Social media, he said, sometimes brings in a lot of wrong answers, but in this case, the videos and pictures are what led to the charges being filed.

The department did finally meet with Eccles Monday afternoon, during which he said the police chief apologized for his feelings of dismissal and assured him the officers were working his case. “I know this has the potential to backfire on LPD, but that wasn’t my intention,” Eccles said. “That doesn’t address the root problem, which is the department manning/staffing.”

When the investigators have to set aside property crimes to work personal crimes, a triage Eccles said he definitely understands, it can prevent detectives from following the freshest leads and may allow criminals to victimize others.
Now, Eccles said he would be willing to act as an advocate for more officers, and he hopes the experience encourages people to invest in home surveillance or vehicle tracking technology, document their experiences during criminal investigations and check to be sure valet keys aren’t inside glove compartments.

“My advice would be to get prepared, and be prepared because it’s not a question of ‘if’ it happens, it’s a question of ‘when,’” he said.

If anyone knows the whereabouts of Daniel Madison St. John, call Crime Stoppers, 355-INFO. For a glimpse of the suspect from Eccles’ videos, visit The Lawton Constitution’s facebook page.

Written by: Malinda Rust @ Lawton Constitution