The three young men appeared suddenly in hoodies and face masks, startling the 25-year-old Southeast Baltimore woman. No one else was nearby. Even the street was empty of cars.
They knocked her to the ground and told her she would die if she cried out. They searched her pockets and took one thing — her keys. They ran to her 2005 Honda Civic, parked outside her Butchers Hill rowhouse, and sped away.
The attack in the evening of Feb. 8 is part of a surge in carjackings in Baltimore, and across the country. So far, the city has recorded a more than 50% increase in carjackings, with more than 200 cases this year. Carjackings also are up in Baltimore County, where the police department has a specialized unit focused on the issue, by six to 38 so far this year.
“We’ve been seeing more of those issues,” said Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway, a Democrat who represents North Baltimore neighborhoods, including Loch Raven, and and chairs the council’s public safety committee.
“People are scared and uneasy,” he said.
The surge has prompted federal law enforcement to increase coordination with local agencies “to investigate and disrupt a rash of violent carjackings in and around the Baltimore area,” the Federal Bureau of Investigations Baltimore field office announced Thursday.
Some blame the increase on joyriding youths, but others say it may reflect increasing demand for stolen vehicles and auto parts. In Baltimore, stolen or carjacked vehicles are often used by perpetrators in other crimes.
The woman robbed of her keys in Butchers Hill asked The Baltimore Sun in an interview to withhold her name because there has not been an arrest in her case and she fears for her safety.
Among the carjacking wave’s other victims is a city police detective, who was knocked to the ground outside a South Baltimore store earlier this month by three people who then took the keys to his unmarked police car. Two people — a 24-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy — were arrested a short time later after they wrecked the car on nearby Hanover Street, police said.
Last month, police said a Johns Hopkins trauma surgeon on his way to work was shot and injured in Northeast Baltimore when several people stopped him and made off with his vehicle.
Cities began reporting increases in carjackings before the pandemic, but those numbers have accelerated, said Christopher Herrmann, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“No one really knows why,” but, he said, “there’s only so many reasons people steal cars.” While some cars may be resold, many cases appear to just be for the thrill, especially with younger suspects, Herrmann said.
“They are just joyriding,” Herrmann said. “It’s unfortunately been the same story in a lot of places.”
Of the 53 carjacking arrests by Baltimore Police this year, Baltimore Police said 29 were juveniles.
Conway said more needs to be done to reverse these trends, including addressing what is causing individuals, especially young people, to try taking occupied vehicles.
However, some researchers suggest more vehicles are being broken down for parts or resold than taken for joyrides. A report by the UChicago Justice Project, a research team from the University of Chicago, found that police in that city recover only about 20% of carjacked vehicles. Researchers say that suggests carjacking increases are not merely from teens seeking thrills.
“If youth joyrides have, in fact, been driving the carjacking spike, then one would expect most cars to be recovered, as the point of a joyride is to drive the car and not sell it,” the report says.
It’s not clear what’s driving the increase in carjackings in Baltimore. Baltimore Police could not say how many of the 496 vehicles carjacked last year were recovered.
Changing technology is partly to blame for the increase in carjackings, experts say. The keyless ignition systems in many newer cars make them harder to steal without having the key fob. Because thieves can’t hot-wire the cars, they’re increasingly targeting vehicle owners, often as they are sitting at the wheel, idling or distracted.
Even as carjackings increase in the city, auto thefts and street robberies remain around the same level as last year, according to publicly available Baltimore statistics.
The number of carjacking charges filed in the juvenile system has remained fairly flat — between 90 and 100 charges recorded each year in Baltimore — while juvenile arrests overall have declined steadily in recent years. Juvenile charges for carjacking in the city ticked up to 100 last year, from 97 in 2020, while total juvenile charges plunged to 1,501 in 2021 from 2,130 the year before, according to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the juvenile division of the Baltimore public defender’s office, said some of her clients are drawn to carjacking to support themselves or their families. Many have been forced to make their own way, or help support young siblings or a parent who is battling an addiction or an elderly grandparent. She said more than one client accused of carjacking has lived in a vacant home.
Teens are often recruited to support larger operations, she said. They might be able to earn some cash from selling the vehicle to a buyer who quickly resells it.
The Port of Baltimore ranked second nationally in 2020 in the number of recovered stolen vehicles, with 152, behind only the Port of New York/New Jersey with 310, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In recent years, the customs field office in Baltimore has reported “a significant rise in the number of recovered stolen vehicles.” It said recoveries rose from 41 in 2015 to a record 246 in 2019. Last year, the customs agency recovered 157 stolen vehicles. Cars recovered from the Baltimore port were found bound for Guinea, Jordan and Nigeria, according to the local office.
Last year, a Howard County man was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for exporting stolen vehicles to Africa. According to the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore, Asomah Maamah helped ship at least 17 vehicles, including rental cars obtained through fraud as well as vehicles stolen from their owners. He created fraudulent paperwork for the vehicles, which were loaded into shipping containers for export, prosecutors said.
Egan said there was a decline in youth arrests for carjackings in Baltimore during the coronavirus pandemic, which she attributes to the federal stimulus aid that helped provide support to families, an increase in low-wage job opportunities for teens, and a pause on evictions. Before the pandemic, she said it was impossible for teens to get a job at McDonald’s, but now there are more openings.
Egan also said there has been improved outreach efforts from Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which has been working more comprehensively with youth, connecting them to jobs, training and support.
“That is what changes my kids’ behavior,” she said. “If you get to 15- and 14-year-olds, you don’t have 17-year-old carjackers,” she said.
Some cities have created specialized police units to specifically tackle the issue.
Chicago Police initially reported some success after establishing a task force of seasoned investigators focused on carjackings, Herrmann said. But according to recent departmental statistics, carjackings are creeping up again, with a 5% increase so far this year to 630, compared with 600 the same time last year.
In Baltimore, some hope to deter carjackers with technology. A group of community associations and business groups in the Southeastern and Southern police districts secured state grant money to pay for license plate readers to position at different intersections in the city. The technology will be operated by Baltimore Police to track suspects.
The technology worries some privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Data from scans by the license plate readers is transmitted to a police server and retained for 18 months, per department policy. The readers capture images of nearly every vehicle that passes them, but only a tiny number of those plates may be connected with a wanted vehicle.
Still, some neighborhood activists believe the technology’s potential outweighs the risks for misuse.
“We need a better network of cameras,” said Arch McKown, the public safety chair for the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association. “It’s nuts-and-bolts community safety.”
McKown acknowledged the importance of long-term programs aimed at reducing the factors that drive crime, but said residents are looking for solutions now. He noted that license plate readers helped Baltimore Police arrest two people charged in the fatal December shooting of Officer Keona Holley in Curtis Bay in South Baltimore.
McKown said carjackings are extremely dangerous.
“There’s a lot of error that could happen that could be fatal between the threat of a gun, but also the threat posed from a vehicle,” he said. In March, a judge sentenced two juveniles to serve 30 years in prison for the 2021 murder of 41-year-old Fabian Mendez as he was being carjacked in the Baltimore Highlands neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore. Police said Mendez was struck and dragged with his vehicle.
In the case of the Baltimore Police officer who was carjacked earlier this month, police said they recovered from the scene a gun that likely misfired.
Meanwhile, the woman who was carjacked in Butchers Hill wonders what’s happened to her case.
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“I don’t feel like I am going to get any updates or closure,” she said.
After her car was taken, she said she called police and they responded quickly. Officers canvassed her neighborhood, seeking any information and doorbell camera footage. She learned the carjackers had followed her in another Honda, an Accord that had been taken recently from someone in Canton, before assaulting her.
Police recovered her Honda Civic a few hours later in West Baltimore, she said. An officer on patrol noticed the car parked with its headlights on and doors ajar, and realized it had been stolen earlier that evening. The car was checked for fingerprints or other evidence, but the suspects wore gloves.
The engine was damaged. Her father is replacing the engine, but she has been without a vehicle since.
“I really like Baltimore,” she said. “I want to stay.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this article.
An earlier version of this article misstated when Baltimore County Police started a carjacking unit. It was created in late 2017. Additionally, the article incorrectly identified a neighborhood association as responsible for securing grants for new license plate readers. The grants were awarded to multiple business districts and neighborhood associations in the Southeastern and Southern police districts.
An earlier version of this article misidentified three neighborhoods in Baltimore Councilman Mark Conway's district.