Chicago and other cities have been grappling with a sharp rise in carjackings. Sun-Times reporter Frank Main interviewed a carjacker about what kinds of cars get targeted, why people commit these crimes and his advice on how not to become a victim. The West Side man, who is in his 30s and has convictions for car thefts, spoke on the condition of anonymity. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Question. Why do you think there’s been a spike in carjackings in Chicago?
Answer. Mainly, most of it is [because people are stealing cars to use in] drive-bys or joyriding, No. 1 being drive-bys — whether they want to do drive-by shootings or whether they want to do kidnappings, hold somebody for ransom or just do simple robberies.
[He says young carjackers like to joyride and do drive-by shootings in stolen high-end Jeep Cherokee models like SRTs and Trackhawks, Dodge Challengers and Chargers with super-charged Hellcat engines, and Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes. He says the nickname in the carjacking world for those types of vehicles is “The fast s---.” But, the man also notes that carjackers are increasingly stealing vehicles for their parts, like catalytic converters and their motors, which they sell on the black market.]
Q. Why would you want a Charger for a drive-by shooting when someone could say, “There’s an orange car with a black stripe on it” and identify that car in the shooting? I would think you’d want to steal a Camry or some, you know, less flashy car?
A. In people’s minds, they might take a “bright one” because if it’s on the news or anywhere in the social media they can brag and say that was them or that was somebody in their clique.
Q. I drive a 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Should I be worried? Should I have my head on a swivel? Or does it depend on what particular model I got?
A. Well, if it’s not an SRT or it doesn’t look like an SRT, they don’t want that Jeep.
Q. So now I’m feeling safer [laughs]. All right, so a really high-end Jeep then?
A. Yeah, the Trackhawks, SRTs. Hemis, they’re not even interested in those anymore.
Q. How do they do drive-by shootings in these cars?
A. [He describes how gang members drive into enemy territories in stolen high-end vehicles with tinted windows and at the last second roll down the windows and fire at their rivals, who aren’t sure whether the people in the car are friend or foe.]
Some may decide to go through a rival neighborhood, a rival gang, you know, [in a high-end car] with tinted windows. There’s a thing where they swerve in the middle of the street. They call it “jackballing.” They’re swerving in the street, slow, popping the music, and they will lead the people on — the rival gang — that it’s one of their own, until the window comes down and now they’ve caught them off guard and let shots off. So that’s a drive-by.
Q. If I’m a gang member in a certain part of town, and I see a [Trackhawk] coming down the street, like a brand-new, beautiful Jeep, I mean, am I not at this point in my life going to be alert to the fact that it could be a bad guy that’s going to shoot me?
A. That’s the thing. It could be. And it could not be. They’re taking the risk of “Do we kill our own, or do we wait?”
Q. Do people in this game have any remorse for scaring the hell out of the people that they’ve robbed or even [shot]? Do people who do this kind of stuff have a heart?
A. I’d say they do, but at the moment in time they are committing to act, I don’t think it’s on their mind. It’s a hustle or a point they are trying to make or trying to prove. After the fact, they may [be] remorseful.
Q. How much of this comes from video games like Grand Theft Auto, or bragging on social media?
A. [It doesn’t]. They’re basically trying to keep up with society as far as rappers and entertainers and the big-time drug dealers in the neighborhood.
Q. What’s the difference between young guys and older guys your age doing carjackings?
A. Younger guys are trying to get the profit for someone else. Or they’ll get it for themselves to commit drive-by shootings, and then for some odd reason they will still joyride with that car.
Q. To your knowledge, is this generally a random crime? Or is there a lot of planning that goes into this?
A. Mostly a random crime.
Q. Is there somebody that everybody knows in a particular neighborhood that you can sell [stolen car parts to]?
A. Through social media, you’ll hear where people want car parts. People know that’s where to take the cars.
Q. Are these like private [social media] networks where people are able to go on and talk without being afraid of the cops reading everything?
A. Ironically, no, it’s just wide open.
Q. Because there’s so much stuff [on the internet] that you can’t keep track of it all? Is that how it works?
A. Yes, because it won’t be blatant where someone says, “Oh, bring your stolen parts.” They’ll just say, “My shop accepts [catalytic converters].” But a person that steals cars knows what’s going on. They’ll go there because they know that’s what they actually mean — they want one of those stolen converters or a motor or parts from that car.
Q. The police say carjackers have relationships with locksmiths to clone [key] fobs. Is that a common thing?
A. You don’t need a locksmith nowadays. On the dark web you can buy your own key fob and your own key fob computer. You can go under the seat to the LoJack [a stolen vehicle recovery system], plug into the system whether by chip or USB insert and the computer automatically hacks into their system, disengages the LoJack and changes the whole system to the brand-new key fob that you got off the dark web. Therefore, the LoJack is now terminated and the system to that car is now switched over to the new key fob.
Q. Do older guys use kids to help them avoid the heat? I was doing a separate story on juvenile court. And I was astonished that almost every kid in court was there on a carjacking case. ... And I’m just wondering if these kids are the ones that are behind the wheel because the adults know that they’re not going to get [charged with] a hijacking case?
A. The ones that are around that age in the juvenile ranks, yes, that’s true.
Q. I did a little research on where these happen. A large concentration of carjackings are on the West Side. I think a lot of people would say it’s Michigan Avenue or some rich suburb. What’s your explanation?
A. This is kind of new to me — [but I’m] not saying it’s not happening on the West Side. I thought most of it [is in] River North to the Uptown area. Bucktown, Gold Coast, River North, that is where [carjackers] like to play. But maybe it’s now the West Side because I guess the North Side is burned up — [the police] are on to that side of town. The West Side has always been known basically [to] have the most money — they’re in poverty, but as far as drug money. I can imagine rival gang members robbing guys in the ‘hood for their cars.
Q. What’s your impression of [Cook County State’s Attorney] Kim Foxx and whether [prosecutors] are lenient or tough on this crime?
A. They’re not playing on carjackings. They are not being lenient on this crime.
Q. So it sounds to me that you’re saying you don’t believe that this giant increase in carjackings has to do [with] prosecutors or police going easy on carjackers or that the criminal justice system is going easy on people who commit these crimes. Is that right?
Q. Can you give people advice about how not to get carjacked?
A. I mean, everyone is entitled to spending their money wisely and buying whatever they want to. It’s a free country. No one should be putting someone at gunpoint, taking what they did earned and worked hard for. But in a growing epidemic of carjackings, people shouldn’t buy these cars. It’s like riding around with drugs, holding them in your window, right past the police. You’re asking for the police to pull you over. You’re asking for them to take you on a high-speed chase. Looking for trouble. So those cars — the Hellcats, the Trackhawks, your SRTs — why buy them if you know what the growing epidemic is right now?
Q. But people who read this are going to say, “Look, here’s some guy who’s blaming the crime on the victim [or the car companies].”
A. Well, don’t be a target. I’m not blaming the crime on the victim. I’m just saying, as of right now, to not be a victim. Hey, stay away from the known areas. And don’t drive those cars in known areas that you know people are hijacking in.