Alleged car thief steals keys from valet; victim reacts to video

Auto thieves have stolen more than 3,350 cars in Milwaukee in 2022. It appears one thief was brazen enough to steal a key straight from the valet. The car’s owner says the theft could have been prevented.

Police discovered Sarah Phonisay’s 2020 Honda Accord sixteen days after it was stolen.

"It was totaled. Airbags were deployed throughout the car," said Phonisay. "My car was pretty much used and abused."

Phonisay has no idea what happened in her car during the two weeks it was missing. She does have a clearer picture of what led up to the theft, thanks to surveillance video released to her by Milwaukee Police.

Phonisay says the video shows actions by the valet service that were, "dangerous and very irresponsible."

Sarah Phonisay

In Milwaukee for an anime convention in February, Phonisay checked into the Hyatt Regency on Kilbourn Avenue. She left her Honda with the valet service. Two nights into her stay, she asked the valet to bring the car around.

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"He’s like, "Oh, I don’t see your keys in here," Phonisay recalled.

Surveillance video shows late Saturday afternoon, a man approached the valet stand. Third Coast Parking tells Contact 6 the man claimed he’d lost his ticket. Then, the video shows the valet opened the key box and allowed the man to rifle through keys.

For nearly three minutes, the man sifted through the key box. When the valet stepped away for eighteen seconds while speaking on his phone, the man appeared to pocket keys.

"They just allowed someone to get [my keys] so easily," said Phonisay, after watching the video.

Talking with Contact 6 off-camera, the owner of Third Coast Parking, Michael Styke, called the employee seen in the video, "a good kid," who got distracted by other aspects of his job, while trying to help a man he thought was a guest.

Styke said they’ve "never had this happen before" and guests are not allowed to access the key cabinet. He said he wished the situation was handled differently.

A surveillance camera at Isaac’s Parking, where Third Coast Parking rents spaces for valet, appears to capture what happened next to Phonisay’s car. The video shows a Honda approach the gate. A man exits the vehicle and rushes to a waiting car, where he’s approached by security. After speaking for a while, the man gets back into the car and backs it up. A few minutes later, a second person exits a waiting car and opens the gate. The Honda pulls up again and is driven out.

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Phonisay says her insurance paid off her car loan. She’d only had the car one month. Phonisay has been without a car since February because she doesn’t have enough money for a down payment. Her question: is she entitled to anything from the valet service? Contact 6 asked a consumer attorney for his opinion.

"In a case where you have a relatively modest amount at stake, it makes it very hard to bring a case," said Nathan DeLadurantey of DeLadurantey Law Firm.

DeLadurantey points to the back of Phonisay’s valet ticket, which has a brief, but common contract. It states the valet is "not responsible for loss or damage to any vehicle" as a result of "theft … or gross negligence". DeLadurantey says a customer could argue the contract language is too broad, but the case may not be worth the expense.

"Insurance is always the first route to go, and the reason being it covers things like theft. That’s what it’s there for," said DeLadurantey. "Often, the cost of that type of case can far outweigh any value or loss the consumer could hope to recover."

Nathan DeLadurantey

In the end, Phonisay’s outcome is no different than that of someone whose car was stolen right off the street.

"I felt really helpless in a situation like that," said Phonisay, of the whole experience. "It was the first car that I ever bought and purchased for myself."

In a statement, the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee says:

 "The Hyatt Regency Milwaukee and the third-party company providing the valet service for this hotel and other properties are taking this situation seriously, along with other downtown businesses that utilize the two downtown garages for valet and self-parking. The hotel joins the valet company and other businesses in working closely with local law enforcement, specifically District 1, to address the current situation around thefts and break-ins."

An employee who answered the phone for Isaac’s Parking said they’d beefed up security and cameras in response to downtown break-ins. Representatives of Isaac’s Parking declined to speak on camera with Contact 6.

In an email, the owner of Third Coast Parking wrote, "we install clubs on all keyed Hyundais and Kias parked with us to help dissuade theft attempts and have a work chat in real-time where any suspicious behavior is reported." Styke says they use the live messaging app to communicate suspicious activity among staff. He says they also communicate with other downtown valet companies.

Contact 6 also reached out to the Milwaukee Chapter of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, which released the following statement:

"The safety and security of our guests and employees remains the top priority of Milwaukee area hoteliers.

The increase in auto thefts is a nationwide issue, and unfortunately, our city is no exception. Milwaukee is still a popular tourist destination and a wonderful place to live and work. We continue to have a strong partnership with the City of Milwaukee Police Department and fully support their efforts in reducing auto thefts in our city."

-Adam Dziadosz, President, Greater Milwaukee Hotel & Lodging Association

No suspects have been arrested for Phonisay’s car theft. Milwaukee Police provided the following summary:

"Milwaukee Police are investigating an auto theft that occurred on February 12, 2022, at approximately 5:51 p.m., on the 300 block of W. Wells Street. The suspect intentionally stole the victim’s vehicle. The vehicle was later recovered on February 28, 2022, unoccupied on the 6800 block of W. Congress St, after a crash. Milwaukee Police continue to seek an unknown suspect. Anyone with any information is asked to contact Milwaukee Police at (414) 935-7360 or to remain anonymous, contact Crime Stoppers at (414) 224-Tips or P3 Tips App."