The first time they carjacked, they were mostly bored.
The sun was setting, and two teens, then 15 and 19, were riding SEPTA with two other friends, and had nothing to do. They were sick of taking public transportation, they said, and wanted an easier way to get around.
“Someone said let’s go get a johnny,” said a West Philadelphia teen, using Philly slang for a stolen car.
And that was that.
They took the El up to Kensington, where they walked the streets in search of an unsuspecting victim. It was dark and they were about to call it, they said, when they spotted a woman coming out of her home. They watched her walk alone to her car, and as soon as she started the engine, they pulled down their ski masks and headed over.
This was their car now, they told the woman. They yanked her from the driver’s seat, hopped in, and drove off.
They got away with it — that time.
As Philadelphia experiences an unprecedented rise in gun violence, the number of carjackings in the city has soared in the last two years.
Through May 25, 546 carjackings were reported in Philadelphia — more than in all of 2020. If this pace continues, the city will approach 1,400 carjackings, a 500% increase over 2019, the year before the pandemic upended crime patterns.
And while carjackings are making the headlines, the theft of unattended vehicles has also skyrocketed, from fewer than 2,000 in 2019, to nearly 9,000 last year, and an even higher pace continues.
The surge in carjackings is not unique to Philly — last year, Chicago had more than 1,800, its highest number in decades — but it’s scary nonetheless, with a handful of the robberies turning deadly and others leaving victims with lifelong injuries.
Carjackings have touched every part of the city, from the dark, one-way blocks of South Philly, to a brazen, middle-of-the day holdup outside City Hall. And even as law enforcement cracks down on the crime, with the U.S. Department of Justice in some cases bringing tougher federal charges as a deterrence, its toll continues to rise.
Teens and organized crews
The reasons behind the boom remain complex.
The majority of those arrested for carjacking are 20 or younger, and Philadelphia police and young people themselves say the crime is partly a fad fueled by social media, with some teens touting their stolen cars to seem tough.
Another factor, experts suggest: Used cars and car parts have increased in value, and are being stolen by professional crews, then chopped up for parts or shipped overseas.
The rising use of electronic “key fobs,” intended to make cars harder to steal, may require thieves to wait until they can confront the driver, police said, with rideshare and delivery drivers increasingly victimized.
“The motivation is often times for money, sometimes for desperation, and sometimes it may be just part of a club,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Ben Naish. “I don’t know what’s in the minds of those folks, but it continues to be something that we’re focusing a lot of attention [on], and we hope to really get it under control.”
Earlier this year, Philadelphia police created a task force to investigate carjackings alongside federal partners, including the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Violent Crime Unit, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
All agencies declined interviews for this article. In a statement, U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said the office has received more referrals than ever for federal carjacking cases, with “an over 100% increase in [charges in] just the first four months of 2022 over all of 2021.”
Of the 179 people arrested by Philadelphia police for carjacking through late May, two-thirds are 20 years or younger, Naish said. About a third were juveniles just old enough to legally drive, he said, and some were as young as 12.
Young people were bored during the pandemic, the two teens said, and with schools and community centers closed, some said kids drifted into crime. They brag on social media and feature the stolen cars in music videos, and the rise of mask-wearing, including ski masks, makes them feel more emboldened, as if they can get away with anything.
“There are some indications that social media has been a driving force,” Naish said. “We don’t think it’s coincidental that it was happening post-pandemic.”
‘Something of my own’
The first rule to carjacking is to never do it in your own neighborhood, young people told The Inquirer.
Since their first experience in Kensington just over a year ago, the two teens, now 16 and 20, carjacked at least three more cars each, they said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could be candid about their experiences without getting in more trouble, and explain the motivation behind the crime.
Working in groups of about four people, they used fear, not a weapon, to make victims give up their keys. The two were arrested once by police — the 16-year-old was charged as a juvenile and sentenced to house arrest; the 20-year-old was charged with a felony, and handed three years probation. They haven’t carjacked since their arrests, they said, and both are involved with a nonprofit youth empowerment program that provides mentorship and guidance.
They carjacked to have a convenient way to get around the city, they said, but also because their friends were doing it.
“I wanted to have something of my own,” said the 20-year-old, who has lived on her own since she was 17.
Carjacking is a crime of opportunity, they said. The type of car doesn’t matter — it’s about catching someone vulnerable, alone, and with the car running.
Once the teens have the car, they said, they quickly swap out the license plate. They steal a plate off another parked car, or head down to a Southwest Philadelphia auto shop, they said, where $15 can buy a fake temporary tag or new plate.
They used the stolen cars to run errands and pick up friends, they said, and stole additional cars because the one they had was confiscated by police or they crashed it.
‘Economics and guns’
The city’s ongoing gun violence crisis also plays a role in carjackings, said Jerry Ratcliffe, a Temple criminal justice professor and former police officer who specializes in criminal intelligence strategy. People engaging in back-and-forth retaliation, he said, may steal a car for a quick getaway from a crime scene, making it harder for police to trace the incident back to them.
“It’s fueled by economics and access to guns,” he said. “Used cars have always been fun to take for a joyride, but now they have increased financial value and aren’t as easy to steal.”
In February, police announced the arrests of four people involved in a carjacking ring, and who are connected to at least four shootings. Most of the cars were never recovered, and law enforcement sources said the cars may be lost to illegal overseas shipping.
Philip Woods is a managing associate of Sekuma Import Export Inc., a Southwest Philadelphia-based company that legally ships about 1,000 cars a year, mostly to West African countries such as Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Customers pay about $2,000 to ship the cars overseas to buyers, family members, or African dealerships, Woods said.
Woods said customers must provide valid titles for the cars they want to ship, which are then validated by U.S. Customs. If people bring a new car or say they “lost the title,” he said, the company would not accept their business. The company has not noticed people attempting this any more than usual, he said.
He said he believes that most thieves exporting stolen cars do so by renting their own shipping containers and tow trucks, bypassing the loading dock’s verification process.
“If it’s already in the container, I cannot ask questions, only the cops or FBI can,” Woods said.
Car thefts don’t need the driver in the car, and occurred 10 times more often last year than carjackings. Sometimes, unattended cars are stolen by tow trucks, Woods said, because it’s easier to load them directly into a shipping container.
That’s how Breeland Martin’s 2014 Dodge Charger was stolen on May 17.
Martin’s car was parallel parked outside of his Nicetown-Tioga house, when a tow truck began circling the block about 11:30 p.m., video shows. It pulls up alongside his Charger and, using a side hitch, slowly edges the car into the street, loads it up, and drives off.
Martin, 40, lost his wallet, $1,000 worth of clothing he sells, and his business license. He had insurance, but now has no way to get to his job in Cherry Hill, working as a truck driver for a kosher food company.
“I’m really just working hard to provide for my family,” he said. “This is a real setback for me.”
Being carjacked is terrifying for victims, and some of the car robberies have turned deadly, leaving communities traumatized.
Nneka Burnett, a 22-year Oxford Circle resident, said she’s scared to leave her house after dark. Her blocks formed a town watch committee in April, after a neighbor, Raheem Bell, 27, was ripped from his car by four gunmen, and shot in the stomach. He survived, but remains in the hospital recovering.
“It struck everybody,” said Burnett, 48, the block captain. “People think sometimes we get used to this kind of stuff or you get adjusted like this is a way of life, and it’s just not true.”
Worries linger on a group of blocks around 19th and Bouvier Streets in South Philadelphia, where earlier this year robbers carjacked eight cars in three months. San Lucas Pizza, which has been at that corner for 15 years, now closes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, said owners Valentin Palillero and Eva Mendez.
In January, two men who called for a pizza delivery carjacked their delivery driver at gunpoint, the owners said. Police have said such workers have been frequent targets, as offenders can call them to an address and know they’ll have cash and the car will be running.
His pizza driver quit shortly afterward out of fear, Palillero said. He understood — a few years earlier, he was carjacked and robbed during a delivery, too.
San Lucas no longer accepts delivery orders by phone — “now, too scared,” Mendez said — and their sole delivery man rides a bike.