Anthony Jones didn’t realize it, but, driving one chilly morning in Oak Park, he fit the profile of a typical carjacking victim.
To start, this was in January — the worst month for carjackings in Cook County this year.
Jones was driving a 2019 Nissan Altima — the No. 3 most-targeted vehicle for carjackers to steal.
He’s 28 — the No. 1 age bracket for victims is 20 to 29.
He’s a man — men are twice as likely to get carjacked as women in Cook County.
He was driving in the west suburbs — where this terrifying crime has become increasingly common.
And he was in a car parked at a curb — one of most common places for carjackers to strike.
It happened just after 7 a.m. on Jan. 20.
Jones had left his car on a street next to a park and walked to a nearby BP station at Roosevelt Road and Harlem Avenue in Oak Park, where he bought a package of Nutter Butter cookies.
Back in his car, he was looking at his phone for music to play while he ran errands. That’s when he noticed a man sprinting toward him.
The guy cursed at Jones and told him to get out.
Jones remembered hearing about a woman in Aurora who did what a carjacker told her and got shot anyway. So he hit the gas.
The would-be carjacker shot him through his window, striking him in the head. Though he was badly wounded, the bullet went through his temple and exited his cheek.
“I was able to move my hands and arms,” Jones says. “I was, like, ‘Wow, my brain’s still functioning.’ ”
Jones — who says he might never regain full vision in his left eye — is among nearly 1,400 carjacking victims this year in Chicago and the rest of Cook County, more than 115 of them in the suburbs.
It’s a carjacking crisis, with the county on pace to see more carjackings this year than it has in two decades. Through the end of September, there were 43.5% more carjackings countywide this year than in the same period last year, when carjackings also were way up over the year before.
In the face of the rise in carjackings, the Chicago Police Department formed a task force in March that includes the Cook County sheriff’s office, the Illinois State Police, the FBI and suburban police departments.
As a part of that effort, the sheriff’s office has created a database allowing suburban departments to share information about carjackings with the task force, making it easier to spot patterns that go beyond any single jurisdiction and to help deploy officers better to fight the problem, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says.
Before, Dart says, “Every town had their own data. You had no idea what was going on in the town next to you.”
Now, he says, “We’re putting the puzzle together.”
Some of the findings gleaned from the database have been surprising:
- For most of this year, there have been more carjackings on Tuesdays than on any other day of the week. Investigators’ theory is that carjackers figure there are fewer cops and less traffic on the streets on Tuesdays. Sheriff’s officials say the number of arrests rose this year after task force members were deployed on Tuesdays. Recently, Sunday has slightly edged out Tuesday as the worst day for carjackings.
- The epicenter of carjackings in the city and suburbs is the West Side — not the Loop, Gold Coast or other high-traffic places. The west suburbs also have been hit hard. Many of the vehicles carjacked in the suburbs wind up on the West Side or the South Side.
- Men have accounted for more than two-thirds of all carjacking victims, but suburban women are equally at risk in the late morning and early afternoon.
The No. 1 most-targeted vehicle model over the past year and a half? Toyota Camry, followed by Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Altima.
Some carjackers steal Camrys and Altimas because they’re common and can be used in other crimes without drawing attention to the car, sheriff’s officials say.
Criminals often target Grand Cherokees and Dodge Chargers because they bring top-dollar in illegal resales in Chicago and also get shipped to overseas markets including Ukraine and Dubai, where they’re in high demand, officials say.
Research by the sheriff’s office, including interviews with suspects who’ve been arrested, showed there are two general types of carjackers: juvenile thrill-seekers and crews of older, professional carjackers.
More than half of the people arrested for carjacking in Chicago last year were juveniles. They often target victims downtown because they’re showing off. They broadcast their heists on social media, but they don’t know the exit routes very well, so their chances of getting caught are high, officials say.
Then, there are the pros. They do their homework. They study Google Maps to plan getaways. They decide in advance which vehicles they want to boost, rather than looking for an easy score.
And they work as a team, sometimes including kids as young as 12 who’ll take the fall if they get caught because their punishment is minimal in juvenile court, officials say.
Often, professional carjackers will work with a “chase” vehicle. After a heist, the ones who grabbed the car will pull into an alley or onto a quiet street so they can trade places with the members of the crew who were in the chase vehicle. That keeps their victims from being able to identify who pulled the gun on them if the stolen car is stopped.
After a vehicle is stolen, professional teams sometimes turn to crooked locksmiths to create new key fobs. They’ll also replace the license plates with stolen ones from vehicles of the same make, model and color as the vehicle they carjacked — to keep the cops off their trail.
The carjacking task force relies on helicopters and airplanes to track fleeing carjackers and cut down on potentially dangerous car chases.
Dart says carjackers have been wearing masks like everyone else during the coronavirus pandemic, making it difficult for witnesses to identify them.
When prosecutors don’t think detectives have enough evidence to charge someone with vehicular highjacking, they’ll often file lesser charges, like possession of a stolen vehicle or criminal trespass to a vehicle.
Last year, police arrested people for vehicle hijacking in about 11% of the carjackings in Chicago, and prosecutors approved vehicle hijacking charges in fewer than half of those cases, according to a University of Chicago Crime Lab report.
Lately, that’s been a source of friction between Cook County prosecutors and cops. Sometimes, the police have turned to federal prosecutors to charge carjacking suspects.
That’s what happened with Edmond Harris. He was charged in federal court with killing Uber driver Javier Ramos and taking his 2013 Lexus GS early on March 23 in the 1300 block of South Independence Boulevard on the West Side. Federal authorities say Harris, who lives nearby, left the 46-year-old Ramos dead in the street, shot in the head.
Harris also is charged with carjacking a Chevrolet Impala at a Shell gas station on March 6 in the 3900 block of West Roosevelt Road. Chevy has been the No. 1 make of carjacked vehicles in Cook County over the past year and a half, according to sheriff’s officials.
On March 24, Harris showed up with a lawyer at a West Side police station and was arrested for the carjacking at the Shell station, court records show. While being taken to the lockup, though, Harris asked an officer if his arrest was about Ramos’ murder the night before, according to court records.
A few days later, he was charged in Cook County criminal court with attempting to carjack Anthony Jones and shooting him.
Jones, who works for a Mount Prospect tool company, was planning to work at home on the day he was shot, which was on a Wednesday.
“He seemed very surprised I wasn’t willing to give up my car,” Jones says.
He says his attacker wasn’t wearing a mask, making him easy to identify.
After Jones was wounded, he got out of his car and stumbled into the gas station for help. But he says the cashier told him to leave because he was bleeding on the floor.
Jones, who was in shock, sat outside the gas station and called his father and a friend before he dialed 911. An ambulance rushed him to Loyola University Medical Center, and he was hospitalized for six days.
Jones is working again but says, “My eye is pretty messed up with retinal damage. I may never be able to see out of my left eye.”
Jones says he’s grateful to police and prosecutors for arresting and charging Harris with shooting him, even if it was months later.
“When I got home, I got really mad, thinking about how he was going to get away with it — how nobody cares,” says Jones, who lives in Forest Park.
He says he’s replaced his driver-side window, which was shattered by the bullet that struck him.
“Yes, I still drive it,” Jones says. “But I’m a little more careful.”
Contributing: Jon Seidel