Angelina Bellissima was parking her car around the corner from her home in South Philadelphia last week when she was jumped from behind by three women who kicked and punched her, doused her with pepper spray, and took off in her 2008 Honda CRV.
Bellissima, 78, had just finished unloading some groceries around 4:30 p.m. and was stunned to be attacked in broad daylight.
“I just started crying,” Bellissima recalled Tuesday. “I said, ‘Why me?’ I never thought this would happen.”
There has been a surge in the number of these brazen crimes across the city in recent months. Police aren’t quite sure what’s fueling the rise.
In January, there were 59 carjackings, up from 18 at the same time last year, according to the Philadelphia Police Department — a more than threefold increase.
This year’s uptick is a continuation of a disturbing trend that unfolded through last year, when many were out of work or had to work from home because of the coronavirus. There were 404 carjackings in 2020, up from 225 in 2019 and 230 in 2018, according to the department.
One of the most terrifying carjackings last year happened in October, when a gunman, on the run after firing an AK-47 assault rifle into a Germantown church, raced up to a stopped car and shot and killed the 19-year-old driver while attempting to steal her black Infiniti sedan.
“A very young, innocent woman whose life was just beginning,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said of the victim, Skylar Owen of Broomall. A male passenger in her car survived a gunshot to the back.
The suspect, Stanley Cochran, 29, was fatally shot by police during a gun battle minutes after the deadly attempted carjacking.
Most carjackings are carried out by men, some wearing face masks or hoodies, according to police reports. They have struck victims across the city, from South Philadelphia to West Philadelphia to Kensington to the Northeast, and communities in between.
“Carjackings are a crime of opportunity,” said Officer Tanya Little, a Police Department spokesperson. “We can speculate and say it’s because of the pandemic, high unemployment, social unrest. ... However, many people experience hard times that are not turning to violence.”
Police are ultimately unsure of the reason for the spike, Little said. As part of what she described as “continuing, comprehensive efforts,” the department is evaluating the data and working to identify hot spots and patterns.
The threefold increase in carjackings so far this year has affected nearly every corner of the city, police records show.
The morning of Jan. 27, there were two carjackings in Kensington: A gunman stole a black Saturn at Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, while four hours earlier on the 3000 block of Coral Street, three teens, two with guns, stole a black Cadillac CTS, according to police.
Two days earlier, a gunman on the 4300 block of Locust Street in West Philadelphia stole a black Mercedes GLE 350.
Greg Bucceroni, who recruits, trains, and supervises members of neighborhood watch programs as a community support specialist with the city’s Town Watch Integrated Services, said he has been in a number of virtual meetings this year about the uptick of carjackings.
“Most of these carjackings happen mainly when people are parked and getting in and out of their vehicle,” he said. “With the distraction of cellphones, people are not paying attention to their surroundings. It’s a crime of opportunity.”
His advice? “Be aware of your surroundings, keep your windows up, doors locked, stay off the damn phone, and, if you’re going to go to Wawa, Dunkin’ Donuts, or an ATM, turn your car off, take your keys with you, and lock the door.”
Officer Little, the Police Department spokesperson, gave similar advice, and added, “Park in well-lit and heavily traveled areas, if possible, and please report suspicious activity.”
Bellissima, who lives with her daughter and helps care for an autistic grandson, said she got a good look at her attackers and believes she would be able to identify them if they are caught.
“I want them to get whatever’s coming to them — the fullest extent of the law,” she said. “I want them to take them off the streets so they can never do this to another person again. I want no mercy.”