Hovering at 500 feet in a high-tech Baltimore police helicopter, Officer Billy Shiflett watched helplessly as a man he was tracking jumped in front of a moving car on a tree-lined Montgomery County road, pulled a woman from the driver's door and threw her to the pavement.
He could do nothing as a carjacker jumped behind the wheel and the woman frantically tried to open a rear door of her Mercedes Benz sport utility vehicle and retrieve something.
FOR THE RECORD - Because of inaccurate information in court documents, an article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly identified the victim of a carjacking in Montgomery County. The victim was Marna Plaia. The Sun regrets the error.
Shiflett and his pilot, Flight Officer Dave Curci, instinctively knew the woman was trying to grab a child.
"We both had lumps in our throats," said Shiflett, a police officer of nine years. "It's a frustrating thing to know somebody needs help and you can't get down to help them, very frustrating."
Despite not being able to swoop down and halt the carjacking, Shiflett and Curci played a crucial role in ending a two-hour, 200-mile high-speed pursuit of the driver with the lives of two children hanging in the balance, police officials said.
The SUV was eventually stopped by police in Anne Arundel County, the man inside the car was arrested and the 3-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl were rescued unharmed.
"If it weren't for the [helicopter], who knows how this would have ended," said Maj. Jesse Oden, commander of the city Police Department's tactical units.
Charged with carjacking, kidnapping, theft and assault is Carl E. Jones, 31, of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County. Jones, who has a lengthy record of arrests and recently was released from jail on a credit card fraud conviction in Anne Arundel County, is being held without bail in Montgomery County. A bail review hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. today.
The mother, identified in court documents as Maraie Plaia, her 3-year-old son, Paul, and her 18-month-old daughter, Edie, were not harmed. The three, who live in Virginia, were visiting relatives in Montgomery County when they were carjacked, police said.
Montgomery County police reported that they were able to monitor the carjacking with the help of TeleAid, a device in the Mercedes that transmits the vehicle's location to an emergency call center and can open voice communications through hands-free cellular phone. Police said they were also able to listen to what was happening inside the SUV.
"They could hear the children were OK the entire time," said Officer Joyce Utter, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman.
The incident began about 8 p.m. in Baltimore when a Western District police officer spotted a stolen Infiniti at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue. The officer began trailing the car while calling for backup and help from Foxtrot, the police department's helicopter, police said.
It took one minute for the helicopter to race from Northeast Baltimore to Interstate 395 near Camden Yards, where Shiflett said he looked outside his window and spotted several patrol cars and the Infiniti.
When the police cars turned on their lights and sirens, the car swerved at a patrol cruiser and drove away, Shiflett said.
A few moments later, the police cars stopped their pursuit - departmental guidelines forbid car chases unless someone's life is in danger or a suspect has been involved in a serious felony.
But Foxtrot did not stop.
Worried that the driver might force someone else off the road, the helicopter officers followed from high above, down Interstate 95, as the Infiniti darted through traffic, police said, reaching speeds up to 140 mph.
As Shiflett watched the car and monitored the helicopter's computers and navigation gear, he relayed messages to dispatchers about the chase.
The helicopter followed the Infiniti west on Interstate 495 and as it pulled onto River Road in Montgomery County. That's when Shiflett saw the driver leave the slowly moving Infiniti, jump into the road and carjack the Mercedes.
Jones told police that the Infiniti he had been driving ran out of gas about a mile off I-495, according to charging documents. He jumped out of the car and waved down the Mercedes, telling the driver that his daughter needed help, according to the police report.
After Plaia slowed and rolled down her window, Jones forced her out of the driver's seat, police said. Plaia struggled with her 3-year-old's seatbelt, but, fearing her son would fall out, she shut the back door when Jones started to drive away, police said.
The chase continued - back onto I-495 and then north on I-95 toward Baltimore. At Route 32, Shiflett spotted unmarked state police cars. A state police helicopter joined the chase and soon took the lead, with Foxtrot falling behind and Shiflett training his chopper's sophisticated infrared camera on the Mercedes - an added precaution in case the driver bailed out.
The chase would continue for another hour - around I-695 to Route 26 before turning around and heading south on I-95 again, to Route 50.
Shiflett watched as the car evaded several moving roadblocks. Concerned about running low on fuel and with another Baltimore police helicopter joining the chase, Foxtrot flew back to the agency's base at Martin State Airport - and Shiflett missed the finale.
Montgomery and Prince George's county police stopped the car on U.S. 50 at U.S. 301 when it rammed a police cruiser and the driver got out, authorities said.
Jones was arrested nearby, police said.
Asked how he felt about the tense night in the helicopter's cockpit, an exhausted Shiflett said, "Well, we, as a law enforcement family, were able to recover two kids safely and lock up the man who took them. ... As long as the vehicle with the children was recovered, that's what me and my partner were concerned about. "
Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.