Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
topical

Carjacking victims’ fears are realized as Chicago fights to control the crime

  • Updated
  • 0
US-NEWS-THIS-IS-NOT-HAPPENING-CARJACKING-2-TB.jpg

A police officer views a crashed car in the 8800 block of South Vincennes Avenue in Chicago on March 9, 2021. According to police, three male offenders attempted to rob a 69-year-old man in the 10600 block of South Leavitt Avenue, at which point he produced a gun and shot at the offenders, striking at least one of them. The offenders fled in a gray Ford Fusion sedan, which crashed into the viaduct and all three were transported by ambulance after being apprehended.

CHICAGO — One woman’s Honda Civic was taken when she was held at gunpoint while picking up her son at a day care center.

Another woman lost her Chevrolet Camaro after a day of shopping when she was pulled out of it and thrown to the ground and her key fob was ripped from its chain.

A ride-share driver’s Ford Escape was stolen after he struggled with a customer he had asked not to eat in the back seat. After a scuffle, the driver held onto the car as it started moving, his knees scraping the pavement after he let go.

“I was so upset when I saw that car being driven off,” the driver, Phillip Sanchez, told the Tribune. “My mind was freaking out.”

These were among the hundreds of carjackings in Chicago already this year, brazen crimes that have frightened city residents and frustrated police, politicians and community leaders — many of whom are already preoccupied with intractable violence that has given the city an unflattering reputation.

Through mid-March, there had been more than 370 carjackings in Chicago. Despite a dip during February’s harsh winter weather, that figure was easily the most seen here during the same period in any year since at least 2001, crime statistics show.

And the result is a shaken city, where residents look over their shoulders more than usual and at least one alderman has gone so far as scheduling a special, secure event at a gas station so constituents could safely fill up.

The woman who was thrown to the ground as her Camaro was taken blamed herself for becoming a victim.

“I knew this was happening a lot. I just wasn’t paying attention,” she told the Tribune in the moments after the carjacking. “It’s nerve-wracking. I think right now I’m getting over the shock. I’m just now like, ‘I can’t believe I was this dumb to just be sitting in my car.’”

The Tribune spent a few days earlier this month trying to find victims of carjackings in the hours or days after they occurred. Here are some of their stories.

‘I knew something was definitely wrong’

One night earlier this month, police officers with flashlights walked along sidewalks and across front lawns on Kenwood Avenue in the Calumet Heights community on Chicago’s South Side.

They pointed beams of light up and down the faces of townhouses and three-flats, looking for video cameras or possibly witnesses to help shed some light on how two women were carjacked on the block earlier in the evening.

It happened around 7:30 p.m. when one of the women gave the other a ride home to the block. The longtime friends, who asked not to be identified due to safety reasons, stood outside the passenger’s building as they gave information to an officer scribbling notes.

“I’m gonna pray for you!” one neighbor called out to the women through her apartment window.

The two had pulled up on the block in a white Chevrolet Camaro after a day of clothes shopping. The driver was dropping off her friend, but the two began chatting before parting ways.

That’s when a gray vehicle pulled up alongside the Camaro and then in front of it, boxing it in and startling the women.

“There’s four guys in there ... and they were all looking back at me, or us, in the car,” the woman who had been behind the wheel of the Camaro recalled between moments of talking to police on the scene. “And right then I knew something was definitely wrong, especially how close they were to my car.”

Judge OKs mental health review in Illinois couple's death

She said everything happened fast. The gray vehicle came in quickly, and a group of younger men got out and were on them in no time.

“And a few of them got out and they’re like, yelling, ‘Get out of the car!’” the woman said.

“They tried to pull her door open,” she said of her friend, the passenger. “The other ones came around to my side and yanked me out and pushed, threw me to the (ground). I had my keys to my chest on the (ground), and they started cursing at me, telling me, ‘Give me the keys! Give me the keys!’”

She screamed hoping someone would hear, as one of the carjackers yelled that he would shoot her.

From what she remembers, one of them got in her Camaro and drove off, while the others left the block in the gray vehicle after taking the women’s purses.

Officers lingered on the block for more than an hour. They spoke with the women periodically and eventually delivered more bad news.

“They’re trying to use my card?” one woman asked an officer after learning the carjackers tried to use her bank card at a business on Ashland Avenue.

A Ford Fusion

Later the same night, a 69-year-old man walked to his vehicle outside his home in the Beverly community, about 7 miles southwest of where the two women were carjacked.

As he was about to head to work, a gray Ford Fusion pulled up and a couple of young men got out of the car.

“Give me your money, (expletive),” one of them said, according to authorities.

Before things went further, the man, who happened to be licensed to carry a gun, pulled out a pistol and fired two shots, striking one of the carjackers, authorities said. The group then fled in the Ford.

About 15 minutes later, police about 2 miles away heard the call of the attempted robbery and spotted a quick flash of lights on 99th Street near Vincennes Avenue. Police saw a large smoke and dust cloud and followed it north, authorities said.

The Fusion crashed 11 blocks away into a pillar of a viaduct. The car was wrecked. Air bags deployed. The rear lights blinked as the horn blared intermittently.

The young men tried to get away. But they were arrested a short time later. One of them, a 17-year-old, had been shot in the right knee by the man with the gun.

The two other teenage boys, one 15 and the other 16, were escorted by police to two separate ambulances on the scene.

Police said they believe they know where the car the teens crashed came from. Many cars taken by force or stolen on the street wind up used in other crimes.

US-NEWS-THIS-IS-NOT-HAPPENING-CARJACKING-3-TB.jpg

Tyler Rasmuson had his Ford Fusion stolen in the Near North Side and then used in several violent crimes around Chicago.

Just days earlier, Tyler Rasmuson had gone to meet a friend for dinner to celebrate a work promotion.

Rasmuson parked his gray 2016 Ford Fusion in the 800 block of West Blackhawk Street near his friend’s apartment, just north of downtown.

After the dinner, Rasmuson got calls from a stranger who tried him three times. It was a passerby along Blackhawk Street who got his name and phone number off some dry cleaning that was scattered on the ground, along with a golf bag.

This person wanted to see if Rasmuson was OK. So Rasmuson met up with the caller and noticed his car was missing.

“Had my keys with me. My car was gone. I had no freakin’ idea what was going on,” he recalled in a telephone interview.

‘I freaked out’

A day after Rasmuson’s Fusion crashed on the South Side, Phillip Sanchez had a costume for an acting gig and a bag with his iPad next to him in his 2020 Ford Escape.

The Lyft driver spent four months looking for the perfect car — one with a rotary gear shift, a digital speedometer and in Sedona orange — and finally got it in January. He also had waited through the pandemic for another acting role and finally got a call from the show “Chicago P.D.” to play a homeless man. He had his gray and black beard grown out for such a role.

The 56-year-old driver told the Tribune he was just doing “bunny hop rides,” or short rides that are barely a mile along, before he dropped off a passenger in scrubs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He almost immediately got a notification for another ride, and picked up a young couple by the hospital’s emergency entrance. They were his 10th ride of the day.

He asked the couple to put their seat belts on as the young woman was talking on the phone.

Sanchez’s father had made two signs for his car’s interior that were on the back of his headrests for passengers. One said, “No Mask No Ride,” as a pandemic precaution, and another read, “No Snacking.”

Still, the couple asked if they could stop for food, and Sanchez instructed them on how to add a side trip to their Lyft route. The two chose a nearby Wendy’s, and Sanchez pulled into the drive-thru.

Sanchez reminded the pair of his sign and the rule against snacking, he recalled, and things took an ugly turn.

Before he knew it, his male passenger was attacking him from behind, Sanchez recalled, punching him in the chest and his head.

US-NEWS-THIS-IS-NOT-HAPPENING-CARJACKING-5-TB.jpg

Ride-share driver Phillip Sanchez, shown March 14, 2021, was attacked and robbed of his car by his passengers on March 10. His car was found the next day, totaled, in Calumet Park.

“I couldn’t defend myself because of one, the position I was in, and two, I was locked in my seat belt,” he said. In moments, the couple was out of the car, with the bag that held his iPad.

“I freaked out. I thought, ‘No, this is not happening,’” Sanchez said, quickly realizing the man had jumped behind the wheel of his car. He tried to hold on to the car as he was dragged a short distance through the Wendy’s parking lot.

He watched the pair drive off with the two new good things in his life: the costume and his new orange Escape.

“It’s like I’m not meant to have anything nice in life. As soon as I have it, it’s pulled out of my hands,” Sanchez said. “This (expletive) proved I couldn’t have it.”

His car was found the next day, totaled, in suburban Calumet Park. Sanchez has called his insurance company but he’s unable to work. A church he attends virtually has started raising money for him.

A vulnerable group

Many carjacking victims are Lyft and Uber drivers. Organizers with the Independent Drivers Guild said they believe some people use the apps to “shop” for victims and the apps make it easy for them to do so.

Several of the organizers held a news conference and candlelight vigil on March 9 to pray for two drivers who were seriously injured during recent carjackings.

Kevin Nelson, an organizer, said the guild estimates there are 120,000 to 150,000 drivers in the Chicago area.

“People are able to exploit a security flaw in the app,” Nelson said. “People don’t have to verify ID. They don’t have to include selfies.”

The drivers must verify themselves, and the passengers can see what kind of car they are driving, making it easy for would-be carjackers to wait for a vehicle they would like to take, organizers said. In a statement, Lyft said it is exploring the expansion of safety features to prevent these kinds of crimes.

In February, a 46-year-old driver was shot multiple times in the 3900 block of West Jackson Boulevard. One bullet lodged into his neck, paralyzing him.

Another driver was shot March 3 by his passenger in an attempted carjacking, according to Chicago police.

Mustafa Alawsi spoke at the news conference about being carjacked in early November.

He picked up passengers around 3 a.m. in the Ukrainian Village area. When they got in the car, Alawsi asked for a name to confirm the ride, but had a gun put to his head instead.

He got out, and they took his phone, money and everything that was with him, he said. His car was found 15 days later.

On March 14, four of the guild organizers including Nelson gathered at the ride-share drivers lot outside O’Hare International Airport.

Some drivers will pick up passengers only at the airports, organizers said, as a way to know that passengers likely do not have a weapon on them.

The guild organizers handed out flyers of a man police were looking for who is accused of raping and robbing an Uber driver.

Two of the drivers said they carry guns, and promised to take care of the man themselves if they saw him.

US-NEWS-THIS-IS-NOT-HAPPENING-CARJACKING-8-TB.jpg

Police officers assist a young woman who had her car taken at gunpoint while picking up her baby from a day care center in the South Deering neighborhood on March 12, 2021.

Arrests and court dates

In Sanchez’s carjacking, 19-year-old Najee Bursey was arrested March 12 in the Woodlawn neighborhood, according to Chicago police. He was charged with felony vehicular hijacking and misdemeanor theft.

Two of the teens arrested with Rasmuson’s Ford Fusion faced robbery and criminal trespassing charges in Cook County Juvenile Court. A 15-year-old boy who was arrested with them could appear in court later in the spring.

Chicago police said they believe the teens may have also been responsible for taking the white Camaro from the two women on Kenwood Avenue three hours before the confrontation with the man who surprised them with a gun. But no charges have been filed in that carjacking.

The women told the Tribune they heard from police that at least one of their bank cards was found at the hospital in the pocket of the 17-year-old who was shot.

On March 11, the 17-year-old and the 16-year-old had their initial court hearings before Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Perez. Both had been through the county’s juvenile justice system before.

The 17-year-old who was shot was only charged with criminal trespassing, and the 69-year-old victim couldn’t identify him as one of those who confronted him outside his car. As it turned out, that teen had just appeared before Perez on another case hours before his arrest.

He appeared at his latest hearing over a video feed while still at Christ Hospital recovering from his bullet wound. The judge’s worries for him had been realized, she told the youth.

“Now you need surgery for this bullet wound,” Perez told the teen. “Young man, you are in a world of trouble.”

Police response

Just hours before Sanchez’s harrowing experience at Wendy’s, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown announced at a news conference the debut of a new section of the Police Department’s website that provides information about carjackings in the city.

The page includes surveillance video, booking photos of suspects and an outlet for the public to send tips.

Brown said suspects use carjacked vehicles to sell for parts and to commit other crimes, but the “No. 1 reason” for carjackings is joyriding.

“It’s a shame that you’ll hold a gun to someone’s head just to joyride,” Brown said.

The Police Department’s efforts to curtail carjackings have been an up-and-down affair.

After a spike in the crime in 2017, a task force was formed the following year. Officials credit it with reducing carjackings to their lowest level in several years.

But that task force, consisting of local, state and federal law enforcement, was sent to concentrate on other work when the number of carjackings dropped.

President Joe Biden addressed the Atlanta shootings from the Oval Office Wednesday, just before meeting virtually with Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin.

In February 2020, not long before Brown took the department helm, Chicago saw another spike, a roughly 75% rise in carjackings during the first two months of that year. So CPD officials announced the restart of a task force to address the problem.

Brown has called the situation a “national phenomenon,” saying reasons for the spike include the fact that more juveniles have been on the street with time on their hands because of schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The problem persists

On March 12, two days after Brown spoke, a 21-year-old woman drove her Honda Civic into the small parking lot of the Illinois Institute for Children to pick up her 3-month-old son after work.

As she pulled into the lot at 10009 S. Yates Blvd. in the South Deering neighborhood, she saw a young man walking down the sidewalk.

She thought nothing of it. But as she parked just outside the day care center, the man came up to her door from behind.

She locked the doors and thought he might just be asking her for money, she told the Tribune moments later. But when he got to her window, he pulled out a gun and pointed it at her.

“(Expletive), get out,” he said.

That’s what she did, and he got in. He pulled out of the lot and went west down 100th Street.

“I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think.”

The woman cried softly as she stood outside the day care center as beat officers called for a detective. Relatives came to help her, as she had her infant nestled in his carrier.

She shook her head. The next day was her birthday, she said.

At least she was OK and her son wasn’t in the car, but she had just started a second job and now didn’t have a way to get there. An officer walked up to her to give her an update on her car.

“They put it in the system real quick because we’ve done so many of these,” he said.

But a few days later, she still had heard nothing.

And she still didn’t have a car.

Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney contributed.


0 Comments
0
0
0
0
0

Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Some say the past year of upheaval has created trust issues with the council, caused sadness over the loss of three camps and revealed a divide between those who want to continue focusing on outdoor Girl Scout experiences and those who favor using more resources for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and other programming.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News