The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Someone tapped on his car window, then pointed a gun. It was yet another carjacking in the D.C. region.

Edward Sullivan, 30, was the first of several victims to be carjacked on Jan. 24 in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

After his volleyball game wrapped up at a school gym in Northwest Washington, Edward Sullivan walked to his Toyota Corolla parked on Columbia Road, up the street from a CVS store.

It was a Monday night and the 30-year-old software engineer who lives in Arlington locked his car door, turned the engine on, reclined behind the wheel and started texting friends to make plans.

Someone tapped on the driver’s side window.

“Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” a young man yelled.

Then the person pulled a gun.

“It was pointed at my head, six inches away.”

Sullivan became the first victim of a group D.C. police said went on to rob or try to rob at least five other people of their vehicles the night of Jan. 24 into the next morning in Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and Petworth. Police described the assailants as youths or young adults, and said no arrests have been made.

Carjackings in the District have soared from 142 reported in 2019 to 426 last year. In Prince George’s County, carjackings went from 100 in 2019 to 394 in 2021. Police in both jurisdictions said the trend has continued into the new year.

In Montgomery County, carjackings reported by Montgomery police rose from 36 in 2020 to 61 in 2021.

In an effort to quell the crimes, authorities in February launched a carjacking task force to include the FBI and police in the District and in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. Police say many of the carjackers are juveniles crisscrossing jurisdictions.

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said the task force arrested 149 people on carjacking charges last year, 100 of them juveniles. As of Jan. 26, he said, those officers had made 18 arrests this year, 14 of them juveniles.

Contee said those youths need to be tracked and counseled. “Maybe they need more help and assistance,” he said. Or, the chief added, maybe then are “not ready to be in community at this time and we have to figure out some alternative.”

Police have described the carjackings as crimes of opportunity, with the vehicles used for joyrides or to commit holdups. Police say ride-share and delivery drivers are prime targets for carjackings and so-called “jump-in” auto thefts of vehicles left unattended and running, even for a moment.

A similar pattern is happening nationwide, authorities say, in part driven by pandemic lockdowns that slowed courts and disrupted lives, employment and support programs, and stripped young people of structured activities.

Earlier this month, D.C. police said a Toyota Highlander carjacked at gunpoint from a candidate for the D.C. Council was believed to have been used in two separate shootings in Northeast Washington that left four people wounded, one of them fatally.

Carjackings are occurring throughout the city, at all times of the day and targeting various models of vehicles. The driver of a Porsche was carjacked in Southeast Washington earlier this year, and on Tuesday night, police said the driver of a Bentley 600 was carjacked on Florida Avenue near Union Market in Northeast. Ten minutes later, police said the driver of an Audi Q5 was carjacked at gunpoint while pumping gas in Southeast.

On a recent Monday, police said boys ages 13 and 14, one armed with a gun, carjacked the driver of a white Infiniti on Massachusetts Avenue at Dupont Circle, at 11:20 a.m. Police said the youths were arrested after being unable to drive the vehicle.

But the spree that began that night with the armed holdup of Sullivan on Columbia Road was particularly intense.

A little more than a half-hour after taking Sullivan’s Corolla about 10:25 p.m., police said they think the same group carjacked the driver of another vehicle at Park Road and 11th Street in Columbia Heights. About 11:40 p.m., police said, the group beat a person and demanded car keys in Petworth, but did not get the vehicle.

At 2:15 a.m. Tuesday, police said the group tried to carjack the driver of a vehicle in Adams Morgan, and a short time later they carjacked another motorist in Columbia Heights. Police said they think at least one member of the group returned to the area hours later, around 11 a.m., and carjacked the driver of a Range Rover at gunpoint at 11th and Kenyon streets.

Teens drive brutal spike in carjackings with covid limiting school and supervision

In hindsight, Sullivan said, it wasn’t safe to sit so long in his car and text after his volleyball game had ended. He said the attack happened fast, from one person tapping on his window to a gun pointed at him to others surrounding his vehicle.

He thought but quickly dismissed trying to drive out of the space, and instead he put his hands on the steering wheel. “There’s a flight or fight response,” Sullivan said, noting advice for people caught in active shooter situations.

“I had the freeze response,” Sullivan said.

Before he climbed out, Sullivan said he looked for his wallet, not wanting to leave it in the vehicle and have it lost or stolen, or go through the hassle of replacing his driver’s license. He found it still in his pocket as he surrendered to the assailants.

Sullivan said the young carjackers got into his Toyota. He said one was a female, who stated, “Where’s your money? Give me your money.” He told her he didn’t have any. He said they did not take his phone or wallet.

He stood behind his Toyota and said the thief at first backed up, forcing him to jump out of the way. He said the driver then pulled out of the space, hitting a sign or garbage can hard enough to dent the passenger door so it couldn’t close properly.

“It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me,” Sullivan said.

He said he was in shock, and now holds a “combination of anger and a little bit of fear.” He didn’t trust his memory to give police a detailed description of the carjackers. As of Friday, no arrests had been made.

Sullivan said he rarely uses the Metro, preferring to drive, and if he gets his Toyota back, he wouldn’t hesitate to return to the District. If he gets a new car, he might stay away.

Either way, Sullivan said, he’s done with sitting in his car and texting.

“Next time,” he said, “I’ll get in my car and go.”

Katie Mettler and Dan Morse contributed to this report.