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Carjacking becoming a youth 'sport' as numbers climb

Better antitheft security could be part of dramatic surge in carjackings.

It was still dark at 6 a.m. as Terry Rawlings Sr. guided his cherry-red Acura CL through Southwest Baltimore. He was heading to the gym to lift weights before his shift as a truck driver.

The 51-year-old was on Washington Boulevard near Bayard Street when his car was rear-ended by a Nissan Altima.

He pulled over and stepped out to check the damage. Before him stood a young man about 6 feet tall in a long black jacket, black athletic pants and New Balance sneakers.

"This is my mom's car," he told Rawlings. "I'm going to be in trouble."

Rawlings turned to look at his rear bumper. He saw only slight damage.

"Well, look," he said. "We can handle it."

Then he turned back to the other driver. A semi-automatic handgun stared back.

"Don't make me kill you, bitch," the young man said.

Rawlings had been set up in a bump-and-rob carjacking. The man shoved Rawlings, jumped into his Acura and sped off. An accomplice trailed in the Altima.

Carjackings in Baltimore have more than tripled since 2013, and the number has continued to climb in the first weeks of 2017, at a rate that has far outpaced other auto thefts. Some other U.S. cities are also seeing increases.

Law enforcement officers and analysts see several reasons for the spike. Police in Baltimore note that the overwhelming majority of suspects are young men or juveniles, emboldened by the relative ease of the crime, and a belief that if they're caught, the courts will not treat them harshly.

Some see the increase as an unintended consequence of better antitheft security. Electronic key fobs and codes, required to start newer-model cars, have made them more difficult to steal — unless the driver is present.

And it's easier to resell a car that has been driven away with its keys than one that's been hotwired, its windows smashed and its steering column busted.

The crime remains relatively rare in Baltimore — there were 402 carjackings in 2016, or little more than one a day in a city of 620,000. There were 5,161 auto thefts, or more than 14 per day.

Still, those 402 carjackings were a 42 percent jump from the year before — and a 224 percent leap from 2013. Auto thefts climbed 14 percent from 2013 to 2016.

Researchers have long predicted a shift toward carjacking.

"Stealing unoccupied cars has become increasingly difficult in recent years owing to improved anti-theft technology, and doing so can be both time-consuming and dangerous," researchers from the University of Texas-Dallas, Georgia State and University of Missouri-St. Louis wrote in a 2003 study. "The car must be broken into and hot-wired, often to the accompaniment of a blaring alarm."

Baltimore Police Maj. Kimberly Burrus commands the detective unit that investigates robberies in the city.

"I think we saw [more of] a rise in carjacking, as opposed to the stolen autos, because of the auto industry changes," she said.

Threat of violence

Carjacking is less common in Baltimore than many other crimes — the city has averaged about 241 per year since 2013. And rarely does it result in death. But injuries can occur.

In December, police say, two teens approached then-City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector in a parking garage, threw her to the ground, beat her and stole her car.

Later that month, police say, a 13-year-old boy approached the car of a retired Baltimore police officer, opened the door and flashed a replica handgun. The retired police officer shot the boy in the head. He survived, police said.

In January, police say, a man and an accomplice with a replica handgun assaulted a driver and stole his green 2009 Toyota Corolla.

In carjacking, researchers say, violence or the threat of violence is essential.

"Violent offenders deal in the currency of fear when enacting predatory crime," University of Texas-Dallas sociologist Bruce Jacobs wrote in 2013. "Nowhere is this more true than in carjacking — a menacing form of robbery."

Most carjackers carry a weapon, crime reports show. The majority of carjackings involve multiple suspects, who outnumber drivers. Suspects and victims rarely know each other.

All of those elements drive victims' fear, reducing resistance and decreasing the need for violence.

Carjackers also use "normalcy illusions" to catch victims unaware, Jacobs wrote. Sometimes a simple request for a cigarette or the time of day allows a carjacker to close in on a driver. Carjackers might blitz a driver, coming up on them suddenly with guns in faces.

Burrus called it a crime of opportunity.

"You can be walking away from your car, you could be exiting your car when you're walking toward an establishment," Burrus said. "In some cases, they could pull up next to you."

A 1992 carjacking in Howard County drove a national scare.

Pam Basu of Savage was driving her 22-month-old daughter to her first day of nursery school when two males yanked her out of her BMW.

Basu tried to save her child but got caught in a seat belt and was dragged to death.

A 27-year-old man and a 17-year-old youth were convicted of first-degree murder, and Congress passed a federal carjacking law.

Maryland legislators approved stiffer sentences for carjacking. State law allows judges to sentence carjackers to up to 30 years in prison. The maximum for car theft is five years.

In Baltimore, 382 people have been charged with carjacking or armed carjacking between 2014 and 2016, including 146 last year, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

Frank G. Scafidi was an FBI agent based in Washington when Basu was killed.

Now a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, he remembers the impact of the crime.

"There was such fear in everyday driving that no matter where you stopped, if it was night, you were susceptible to someone coming up to your car and sticking a gun in your face," he said.

"Today you still see it. If you see it within a population of Baltimore that's primarily juveniles that begs the question: What is causing that population to do that crime?"

Teen suspects

Burrus said carjackers are mostly young men and teens looking for cars to ride around in at their leisure.

They prefer newer models, she said; Honda Crosstours seem to be a popular choice.

"They tend to be your Hondas and your Acuras and more of your high-ends like your BMWs and your Range Rovers, which are hard to steal if they're parked," she said. "They use them and kind of claim them as their own, believe it or not."

They roam in groups in Baltimore, she said, going on carjacking sprees until every person has his own car. In one case, she said, police recovered several key fobs in a house where suspects were holding onto multiple cars parked nearby.

Police have broken up several groups of carjackers. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said last month that officers stopped two cars — one that was carjacked and the other stolen — and arrested seven suspects ranging in age from 25 to 12. Regional auto-theft task force officers broke up another suspected carjacking crew that ranged from 20 to 14.

Davis suspects young men are "preying" on teens, coercing or persuading them to carjack vehicles because they know juvenile courts are lenient on offenders. Burrus said some of the juveniles arrested for carjacking last year are back on the street, and detectives think they are committing more carjackings.

"When juveniles are caught, whatever consequences they receive is not enough to deter their behavior," police spokesman Lt. Jarron Jackson said.

Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary, said judges cannot comment on specific cases. Asked about consequences for young carjackers generally, she referred to state rules and procedures that judges follow when processing juvenile suspects.

Spector, the 80-year-old former councilwoman, suffered a black eye when she was hauled out of her 2005 Buick and thrown into a concrete pillar.

Police arrested a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old in the attack.

"It's almost a sport now, honestly," Spector said. "I can tell you in my case, the 13-year-old had a 2-year-old rap sheet of carjacking in Federal Hill."

She said the she was stunned at how young the boys were. She said they were wearing school uniforms and carrying book bags when they approached her car.

Spector said she thought they might be asking her a question or seeking a few dollars. Instead, police say, they yanked her out of the car, got in and tried to drive out of the parking garage. They couldn't get past the gate of the parking garage, and two nearby workers intervened.

The case is in juvenile court, where proceedings are kept confidential.

Spector said the 15-year-old has pleaded guilty but has not been sentenced.

Before he went before a judge, Spector said, she sat down with him and asked: "What were you thinking?"

The boy could only cry in response, she said. Spector said she hugged and kissed him.

"I just hope and pray that you will think next time and not even think to do something like this again," she told him.

The 13-year-old hasn't been tried yet, Spector said.

Spector said she plans to be at every hearing her attackers attend to make sure the teens receive adequate but fair punishment. They could have killed her or someone else, she said.

"They need consequences to be redeemed," Spector said.

Disappointing process

Henry Marucut, an Uber driver, had a passenger in his car at 2 a.m. on East Northern Parkway and Loch Raven Boulevard one night last April when he was targeted for a bump and rob carjacking.

Police found the gray 2006 Acura TL abandoned days later.

The front end had been bashed in — it was used to carjack other vehicles.

Marucut, a loan officer who lives in White Marsh, drove Uber for extra money. He lost an iPad, a work laptop, gym bag, cash and personal items; he had to spend $500 to get new car keys, $300 to tow the car and $230 for the city impound fee.

Detectives ultimately arrested a 17-year-old. Marucut said he took days off and used a ride service to attend two juvenile court hearings in the hope he would see justice and receive restitution.

"The whole process has been disappointing," he said. "I spent a lot of time in all of this and I'm coming out with nothing."

He said he was told he would not see the felony charges — kidnapping, carjacking, grand theft — that an adult would face.

His request for restitution went nowhere, he said. The teen didn't work. His mother was disabled and on government assistance.

Michael G. Cherbonneau, a University of North Florida criminologist who studies carjacking, said it's easy to understand how carjacking can grow among teens in a city.

It's a group crime, and if one of them learns the consequences of being caught are minor, it's passed on to other teens.

They are at or near driving age, and are seeking independence and autonomy.

Some might carjack someone because they feel a driver with a new or desirable car is "showing it off."

"Carjacking is a way to get really both things that they want," Cherbonneau said. "Take you down a notch in terms of status and show you that you're vulnerable, but also steal what you have."

Cherbonneau doesn't believe technology and safety features that protect unoccupied cars is driving up carjacking.

"I have no doubt that people choose carjackings because cars are harder to steal or people don't know how to steal them through mechanical skills," he said. "But whether or not people are choosing carjacking in large part because of technological advancements — I'm a little dubious of that because there are still plenty of cars that are available to steal."

'Completely violated'

Rawlings had never had a gun stuck in his face until the day last month when his Acura CL was stolen.

Police recovered the car, but its front end was smashed and its bumper was hanging off. He tried to drive the car home from the Northeast Baltimore police station but it kept stalling. He ditched it at a cousin's house.

"They destroyed it, basically," he said last week.

Now Rawlings hopes to regain normalcy and a sense of safety. Since the attack, he has found himself looking over his shoulder for an attacker.

He said he feels "completely violated."

"I'm a simple guy," he said. "I have custody of my 6-year-old daughter and that's what I want to do is give my daughter a fantastic life. And that's all I want to do. I don't want any trouble, but the way the world's set up, it's just not safe anymore."

The suspects remain at large, Rawlings said, but a detective pieced together some of their journey after the attack.

Rawlings said the investigator told him the crew used his car to smash into another, and carjack a brother and sister on their way to the airport at 4:20 a.m.

The detective knew this because the victims' luggage was left in the Acura as evidence of a spree.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Carjackings by neighborhood 2012-2016

Police recorded 1,147 carjackings in Baltimore from 2012 to 2016. Here are the neighborhoods that have seen the most.

total

Frankford30

Reservoir Hill24

Belair-Edison23

Coldstream Homestead Montebello19

Gwynns Falls19

Sandtown-Winchester18

Patterson Park Neighborhood17

Penrose/Fayette Street Outreach17

Upton17

Washington Village/Pigtown17

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