Carjacking: Our new terrorism

Claude Lewis

September 23, 1992|By Claude Lewis

LAST week, Aaron Garnett became the latest reported victim of a carjacking -- the armed theft of an automobile.

Until this happened, Mr. Garnett, 24, who lived in the New York borough of Queens, was a free spirit proud of three things: his car, his girl and his life. He routinely cruised around the neighborhood in his shiny white sedan listening to his radio. The automobile was distinctively appointed with chrome wheel covers. It often attracted attention.

On Wednesday, Mr. Garnett was talking on a pay telephone around midnight on Linden Boulevard, as his sporty 1987 Acura Legend idled at the curb.

He didn't notice right away that a thief had slipped into his car. When he did, he dropped the phone and --ed toward the curb. He managed to stop the would-be thief, wrestling him to the ground. But he stopped a bullet in the process when, according to police, an accomplice in the auto theft fired his weapon. The bullet crashed through the windshield and struck Mr. Garnett in his chest. He was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m.

"Anyone who snuffs out a life for a piece of machinery," lamented the young man's father after the news of his son's murder, "they don't give a damn about nothing."

Aaron Garnett Sr.'s observation seemed a painfully accurate description of a number of carjackers who are crisscrossing the nation from Boston to Berkeley.

Carjackings are on the rise. The theft of automobiles at gunpoint is increasing so rapidly that an already overburdened FBI has joined with local police in the effort to stem the tide of this latest form of terrorism.

Law enforcement officials say one reason for carjacking is that many car thieves no longer have the time, patience or intelligence to circumvent today's sophisticated auto alarm systems.

"With guns so easily available, it's usually far more simple to point one in somebody's face and order them out of their automobile," said Special Agent Frank Scafidi of the FBI.

While some officials refer to carjackings as a growing "epidemic," others see carjacking as a random crime that makes it difficult for authorities to crack down on. However, FBI and local police in some areas have established a decoy operation to try to catch carjackers. At least eight people have been killed during rTC carjackings in the Washington-Baltimore area since the beginning of the year.

This month, the experience of 34-year-old Pam Basu brought national attention to the problem. Ms. Basu was driving her BMW toward a preschool in Columbia where she planned to drop off her 2-year-old daughter. When she slowed down for a stop sign, two men accosted her and attempted to push her from her automobile. Ms. Basu's arm became entangled in a seat belt and she was dragged nearly two miles to her death. The men, who were caught, had callously tossed the child from the car. Fortunately, the toddler was not seriously injured.

In most carjackings, thieves point guns at their victims and, in effect, demand "your car or your life."

After handing over his keys to a carjacker, an off-duty FBI agent recently shot a youth to death in the nation's capital.

Because the problem of carjacking has become so acute, FBI Director William Sessions announced that carjackings would be added to the caseload of some 300 agents assigned to investigate violent crime in America.

The problem faced by FBI and local law enforcers is that the crimes are executed in such a random manner that it's difficult to figure out where the thieves are operating, although carjackings in the Washington-Baltimore corridor outstrip those in the rest of the nation.

The best way to avoid being a victim is to be alert. Police advise drivers to approach their cars alertly and get help if they see suspicious characters lurking about. They should lock their doors as soon as they enter their vehicles. Carjackings occur at gas stations, stop lights -- even in driveways. They happen even in broad daylight, as these boldest of thieves carry out their crazy activity with little obvious fear.

Some drivers are becoming so frightened by the possibility of becoming carjacking victims that they are arming themselves.

Legislation is now snaking its way through Congress to make carjackings a federal crime with a minimum prison sentence of 15 years. For those who kill people during such crimes, Congress is seeking the death penalty.

The legislation may ultimately help, but with the proliferation of guns and drugs, carjackings will probably go on for several years. The best advice is to drive with caution; the life you save almost certainly will be your own.

Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

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