Carjackings alarm Capitol Hill residents in D.C.

Victoria Gentry was the target of an attempted carjacking, but the thieves could not figure out how to operate the ignition of her BMW.
Victoria Gentry was the target of an attempted carjacking, but the thieves could not figure out how to operate the ignition of her BMW. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

A rash of armed carjackings in an eight-block stretch in Capitol Hill has terrified residents and vexed police, who have stepped up patrols and surveillance in the area.

The extra policing has resulted in arrests in three of the seven carjackings, authorities said. But at least four cases remain open, and people remain scared.

The carjackings began in mid-October and have occurred between 10th and 14th streets NE, stretching to Constitution Avenue NE. The robbers struck during the daytime and, in all but one instance, were armed. Five of the seven carjackings took place on a weekend.

But it was the latest incident, an armed carjacking of a mother of two on Dec. 13, that galvanized residents to push public officials to action. Petra Jacobs arrived home on Sunday afternoon after taking her two children, ages 1 and 2, to see a Christmas tree display at Union Station. She had just taken them out of their car seats, she said, when a man stuck a gun in her face, demanded her purse and car keys and then drove off with an accomplice in the family's 2008 Toyota Highlander.

"Why is that man taking our car?" Jacobs said her 2-year-old son asked as the thieves kept the gun trained on the family. "I told him: 'Everything is fine. He can have our car. Everything is fine.' "

Jacobs sent an e-mail to her neighbors in the 1200 block of E Street to warn them. The message made its way onto the 3,000-member Moms on the Hill neighborhood e-mail discussion group. Soon other carjacking victims shared their stories. Other residents, outraged and frightened by the pattern, reached out to police and public officials, resulting in a community forum scheduled for Monday night at Options Public Charter School to discuss the carjackings.

"This is really an out-of-control situation, when someone has a gun on the street and is pointing it at the mother of kids," said Jacobs, 38. "I think a meeting is important so that people can see that the community cares. But I'm just concerned that it will be a one-time thing."

First District Cmdr. David K. Kamperin, who has spent the past week giving safety tips and responding to a wave of e-mails from concerned residents, said detectives with the city's carjacking unit believe that the carjackers are teens and young adults living in Clay Terrace, a cluster of public housing units across the Anacostia River in Northeast that has long suffered from violence and drug activity. The thieves drive across on Benning Road NE, which turns into H Street on Capitol Hill and is right near the blocks where the carjackings have occurred.

Overall, in the 1st Police District, Kamperin said, violent crime has declined, but to date there are six more carjackings this year than at this time last year. And the pattern is somewhat new. Kamperin said the arrests in the three carjackings are a good start.

"What's unusual about these, and what we didn't forecast, was that a lot of these are late morning, early afternoon, and some of them even happened on Sunday. We didn't forecast Sunday daytime," he said.

Kamperin said he has put more patrols and plainclothes officers in the area, and deployed "tag readers" -- officers who scan license plates looking for stolen cars. Additionally, when the crimes occur, responding 1st District officers switch radio channels to transmit descriptions of the carjackers to the neighboring 6th District so that officers there can also be on the lookout. As a result, several cars have been recovered, Kamperin said.

Officers have also gone door-to-door to talk to residents. Scot Montrey, 43, who lives across the street from Jacobs, said he appreciated the visit from an officer last week.

"We refuse to live in fear, but we are more vigilant now," said Montrey, who has a wife and three children ages 10, 8 and 6, and a year ago felt so comfortable in his neighborhood that he would sometimes forget to lock the house door. No longer.

Victoria Gentry, a stay-at-home mother of a 10-month-old son, was the target of an attempted carjacking a week before Jacobs's sport-utility vehicle was taken. Gentry, who was alone at the time, said that she got out of her car and noticed someone walking up the middle of E Street, near Seventh Street, but that she wasn't worried.

As she approached her front gate, she said she was jumped by several people and punched in the face. She handed over her keys, but the thieves could not figure out how to start the push-button ignition of the BMW and eventually fled.

Gentry, who was born and raised in the District, said that she refuses to think of herself as a victim but that "my false sense of security has been robbed. I simply cannot walk the streets of this livable, walkable community in the same way."

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