Ted Annenberg was sitting outside on his brother’s patio one Sunday afternoon, soaking up one of the last days of warm sunshine before fall arrived, when two people suddenly appeared in front of him and demanded his keys and phone.
“'Gimme ya keys, gimme ya phone,'” the 60-year-old recalled them saying as they pointed to a silver gun placed snugly in a waistband.
Annenberg handed over the keys to his Volkswagen and his iPhone. The two assailants ran to the car and sped out of the Bentalou-Smallwood neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that Annenberg realized he could’ve died.
“I didn’t want to leave my apartment,” he said.
In a city where the focus is often on the stubbornly high homicide rate — Baltimore is on track to exceed 300 killings for the fifth year in a row — carjackings, like the one Annenburg experienced, have been climbing as well. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of carjackings more than tripled, and they’re up again this year.
There have been more than 400 carjackings across Baltimore through Sept. 28, up 29 percent from last year, according to police data. Other auto thefts, while far more common, are down 8.6%.
Last month, 27-year-old Donye Lowther was killed in what police say was Baltimore’s first fatal carjacking in 2019.
“People are scared to walk to their cars,” City Councilman Zeke Cohen said. “And that’s completely unacceptable.”
Police can’t say specifically why carjackings are on the rise. Baltimore Police Lt. Col. John Herzog said it could be because it’s a crime of opportunity — all you need is one person not paying attention. Or because it’s easier to steal a car while it’s running than when it’s locked because of anti-theft technology.
But what police do know is that with the exception of two districts, carjackings are up across the board. They know the crime tends to happen at night and in the early morning hours. And they believe it’s mostly juveniles and young adults committing them.
Once cars have been stolen, police said they are used to commit other crimes.
“We’re seeing a lot of crossover between carjackings and street robberies,” said Herzog, the head of the department’s detectives’ division. “And we’re looking at them as if they’re connected because of the geography of where these crimes happen.”
Herzog said many of the crimes are committed by carjacking crews, which helps police connect various crimes together. He pointed to a series of arrests the department made last month related to the August shooting of Sgt. Isaac Carrington.
A 22-year veteran of the force, Carrington was chatting with his neighbor, Lemmie Brady III, across the street from his home in Northeast Baltimore when two men pulled up in a blue Acura, police said. Carrington was robbed and shot several times while his neighbor ran for safety.
A month after the sergeant’s shooting, police charged Rashaud Nesmith, 18, and Karon Foster, 25, with various crimes including carjacking and robbery in the incident. Police said before the Aug. 18 shooting, they already were investigating the two men for a string of robberies and carjackings in Northeast Baltimore.
In all, the department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were able to solve six cases — from a fatal triple shooting to various robberies — all tracing back to a July 11 carjacking in which a blue Acura was stolen.
“The motive for the Sgt. Carrington shooting was a robbery,” Herzog said. “They were using the stolen Acura, and it goes to show that the carjackings were intertwined with other crimes.”
Over the last year police have pushed to collaborate with federal agencies like the FBI and ATF to help solve and crack down on violent crimes, including carjackings.
Rob Cekada, special agent in charge of the Baltimore ATF office, said their agency has been able to solve many of these crimes — particularly Carrington’s — by focusing on the guns and shell casings. They’ve been able to use the shell casings to connect crimes such as homicides, robberies and carjackings, he said.
Police also have noticed that illegal taxis known as “hackers” are often targets for carjackings, Herzog said, with 68 cases so far this year involving them. Hackers make easy targets, he said, because they’ve already let people into their cars. Once they reach the destination, they’ll fork over a couple of dollars and then take control of the car.
Three of the districts that have seen an increase in carjackings — southwest, northwest and northeast — are hot spots for hacking, Herzog said.
The Southeastern district, which includes neighborhoods such as Canton, Fells Point and Highlandtown, has seen 60 carjackings — nearly twice as many as this time last year.
Cohen, who represents the area, said he wrote a letter to Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison expressing concern about the increase. Police responded to calls for help by deploying more officers to the area and setting up three specific patrol zones. Cohen declined to specify what the areas are.
The councilman said he’s pushing residents to install home security cameras to try to catch a glimpse of any crime that occurs. He also said he tries to reach out to every carjacking victim.
“This crime instills fear, anxiety, stress and trauma,” Cohen said. “It’s important for victims to feel support and to really make an effort to be there for them.”
To solve these crimes it’s always easiest to find the stolen car with someone driving it, Herzog said. But most times it doesn’t pan out that way, and the case requires “conventional” investigative tactics like using video surveillance footage and canvassing neighborhoods, he said.
In Annenberg’s case, charging documents said police used license plate readers to track the Volkswagen to Baltimore County. Three days after the Sept. 8 carjacking, police found the car and discovered Travon Fortune, 20, had been living out of the vehicle.
Police arrested Fortune and Gary Waters, 22, and the two face nearly 20 charges including carjacking, robbery and second-degree assault. Charging documents said police also arrested two other individuals in the car.
Police say it’s mostly teens and young adults committing carjackings, but data from the Office of the Public Defender shows only 28 juveniles have faced carjacking charges this year. Jenny Egan, chief of the office’s juvenile division, said she believes police are painting the wrong narrative about young people’s involvement with the crime.
“There is no real statistical difference or uptick in young people committing these crimes,” Egan said. “Young people are different than adults and deserve to be treated differently and talked about differently. They are vulnerable in a lot of ways and subject to a lot of pressure.”
One thing that has stuck in Evan O’Dea’s mind about his carjacking was just how young the men behind the gun appeared.
He and his roommate were trying to jump start his truck in the Barclay neighborhood one night in early September. The 35-year-old heard someone yell, asking where the closest Pizza Hut was.
Before O’Dea knew it, a gun and two young men were in their faces.
Police say Tiyon Lyle, 18, and another person who has yet to be arrested leapt into O’Dea’s roommates car and drove off.
Police tracked the car using the department’s Foxtrot helicopter and arrested Lyle after a short foot chase, according to charging documents.
“In his mind it’s probably like kids being kids,” O’Dea said. “In reality it’s not — it’s hugely disruptive to the victims and community. But this is one poorly considered night and now there [are] going to be lifelong consequences.”
To review the computer code that generated the analysis, go to bsun.md/balt-city-carjackings-2019.