An Epidemic of Carjackings Afflicts Newark
By MARC SANTORA and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
Published: December 28, 2013
The grocery shop in Newark was crowded on Monday, as customers picked up last-minute supplies for Christmas. Out front, a couple of regular customers pulled up in a Mercedes-Benz E350. The passenger got out, but the driver remained behind the wheel, talking on a cellphone. Nearby, four young men lingered, their faces covered with scarves and hoods, eyeing the car as they walked past it twice, the store owner recalled.
One of the men jumped into the car and told the driver to get out, the store owner said. The driver resisted and slammed the car into reverse, hitting a parked Jeep, which tossed the assailant from the car. A shot was fired. The men fled, leaving the car behind and its driver wounded.
The episode was among the latest in an epidemic of carjackings in and around Newark. That gnawing reality was put in sharp relief on Dec. 15, when a young lawyer was shot and killed as he struggled with assailants intent on stealing his 2012 Range Rover in the parking garage of the Mall at Short Hills, a retail center in Millburn, N.J., that attracts the affluent.
Three of the young men who were eventually arrested and charged in the crime were from Newark. A fourth man was from the neighboring town of Irvington.
“It is like a diseased town,” said the Newark store owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the assailants in the Mercedes case, who have not been caught. “There are a lot of predators.”
Carjackings are nothing new to Newark, a city that was among the nation’s worst for such crimes in the 1990s. Like other cities, Newark saw the number of carjackings fall in subsequent years. But they have returned to Newark with a vengeance.
In 2007, there were 208 reported carjackings in all of New Jersey. In 2012, there were 345 in Newark alone, 56 of which took place in December, according to the Newark police.
Already this year, there had been 475 carjackings in Essex County as of Friday, the vast majority of those in Newark, according to the Essex County prosecutor’s office. In contrast, New York City had seen 159 carjackings this year as of Friday, and there has been a general decline over the last five years, the Police Department said.
One law enforcement official in New Jersey, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, likened the trend in Newark to a “ride-share program” for criminals.
The rise in carjackings comes at a time when Newark is experiencing high rates of other violent crimes. With a population of less than 300,000 people, Newark has already seen at least 100 murders this year, and the feeling of lawlessness among some residents is palpable.
Law enforcement officials and criminologists also said that Newark’s proximity to major ports — one in Newark and another in nearby Elizabeth — has contributed to the increase, giving thieves the ability to move stolen cars quickly to overseas markets. Indeed, in some cases, carjackers are simply looking for a car they can use to commit another crime and then dump. Some are targets of opportunity; others are orchestrated by organized car-theft rings that send vehicles for resale in Africa, law enforcement officials said.
This year, the victims included a Newark politician, an off-duty police officer and a police sergeant. The trend is so acute that it has inspired a Twitter account, @NewarkCarjacked, which alerts followers to most new cases.
Paul Telekian, the owner of Empire Auto Body in the city’s Ironbound section, said some of his clients refuse to drive to his shop. So he arranges to meet them in West Orange, and drives the cars in himself.
“The insecurity is deep now,” he said.
On the same day the lawyer, Dustin J. Friedland, was killed, three men wearing ski masks and brandishing a handgun carjacked a man in South Orange, another Newark suburb, fleeing with his Land Rover, according to the South Orange police. Although some law enforcement officials speculated that the two crimes could be related, there was no evidence connecting the carjackings, the police said.
Efforts to address the problem have yet to yield significant results. Responding to the spike in carjackings, New Jersey in 2010 created four regional task forces composed of municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement personnel, to assist with investigations. Those task forces have mainly dealt with investigating carjackings, rather than preventing them, officials said.
In August, Essex County unveiled billboards with the photos of convicted carjackers set against images of jail cells.
“Jahlil from Newark, now serving more than 21 years in federal prison in West Virginia,” read one of the billboards, which also included a slogan: “Seconds to carjack. Years of hard time.”
The goal, according to the Essex County prosecutor’s office, was to send a message to young people about the stiff punishments for carjacking. During a carjacking epidemic in the 1990s, the maximum punishment for such crimes was raised to 30 years in prison.
“It’s been a serious problem for a long time and we’ve all been grappling with it,” said Katherine B. Carter, the spokeswoman for the Essex County prosecutor.
Mildred C. Crump, the president of the Newark Municipal Council, criticized law enforcement agencies for failing to devote enough resources to preventing carjackings rather than just prosecuting offenders after they commit a crime.
“I think the situation has reached its crisis,” she said. “We can no longer sit and hope that this will go away.”
One reason carjackings are resurgent is that many new cars have sophisticated anti-theft measures, including computerized ignition systems that make driving a vehicle without the keys nearly impossible.
“With better electronic car security, carjacking may be a more efficient way to obtain cars for sale or parts than the ‘traditional’ method of smashing car windows and hot-wiring the ignition,” Jeffrey A. Fagan, a criminologist at Columbia University, said.
Terri Miller, the executive director of an anti-car theft group called Help Eliminate Auto Thefts, or H.E.A.T., based in Michigan, said the Internet had greatly expanded the marketplace for small-time thieves.
“We see a lot of these vehicles that are carjacked ending up on Craigslist,” she said. “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.”
Her group has focused its efforts on Detroit, where the problem is so endemic that the city’s police chief, James Craig, narrowly avoided becoming a victim himself, speeding away as assailants approached his unmarked police car.
In New Jersey, most carjackers are between the ages of 16 and 33, and often live in Essex County, Ms. Carter said.
Almost 90 percent of stolen cars are recovered, she said, though a small fraction of the perpetrators are arrested. The majority of cases do not involve luxury vehicles: Hondas are the most frequent targets of carjackers, followed by Nissans, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Fords.
Only a small number of carjackings are tied to organized crime rings, Ms. Carter said, but for those enterprises, Newark’s location near two ports is a major attraction. One such ring was run by Hope Kentete, who was convicted in June for leading a group that shipped carjacked or stolen cars from New Jersey to Africa. Over 18 months, according to the authorities, Ms. Kentete orchestrated the illegal export of cars worth more than $1 million to countries like Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The investigation offered a glimpse into the intricate network of conspirators necessary to turn a stolen car into cash.
In Ms. Kentete’s ring, gang members would do the carjacking and then sell the vehicle to fences for a few thousand dollars.
From there, according to court documents, the car would be sent to an individual who specializes in “retagging,” or creating a clean vehicle identification number.
Ms. Kentete then would find customers and ship the cars overseas.
While weapons are used in most carjackings, very rarely do they lead to injury or death, officials said. Since 2009, three people had been killed during carjackings in Essex County, including Mr. Friedland, 30.
Mr. Telekian, the owner of the auto-body shop, said the spate of carjackings had influenced his behavior. He no longer leaves any of the shop’s cars outside the building’s roll-down doors.
And, after a lifetime in Newark and 46 years as a business owner, Mr. Telekian, 72, said all of the crime has made him want to leave New Jersey.
“This used to be a very nice town,” he said.