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With carjackings on the rise, this trio of fed-up strangers intervened

Montgomery County Detective Brock Dulko stands in a Glenmont parking lot where a good Samaritan helped intervene during two attempted carjackings.
Montgomery County Detective Brock Dulko stands in a Glenmont parking lot where a good Samaritan helped intervene during two attempted carjackings. (Dan Morse/The Washington Post)

The Uber Eats driver had just picked up a rotisserie chicken meal to deliver. In the parking lot was a construction worker on a midday break. And finishing her weekly grocery run was an administrative assistant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

What brought them together — and continues to be a growing problem in the Washington region — is one of the most jolting crimes there is: a carjacking.

“I thought, ‘Today’s the last day of my life,’ ” the Uber Eats driver recalled.

The case unfolded in broad daylight in the Glenmont section of Montgomery County, when the driver had a large knife pressed to her stomach within clear view of the construction worker.

“Stop! Stop!” he yelled.

The three alleged attempted carjackers — ages 18, 15 and 12 — fled, but soon went after the NIH staffer, trying unsuccessfully to pull her from her Nissan, according to court filings, detectives involved in the case and interviews with the three strangers.

The three banded together, calling 911 to describe the fleeing perpetrators and report their movements. A swarm of police cars descended as officers chased the alleged attempted carjackers through an apartment complex and found them after they’d run inside two basement mechanical rooms.

“I knew we had to catch them so they can pay for their crime and stop doing this,” said the construction worker, 42, who like the two victims spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.

As it turns out, a lot of people have been doing this.

Montgomery County has recorded at least 59 carjackings this year, up from 36 in 2020 and 20 in 2019. D.C. has recorded at least 385 carjackings so far in 2021, a 19 percent jump over the same period in 2020. The crime is also up in nearby Prince George’s County and in cities around the country.

Earlier coverage: Teens drive brutal rise in carjackings

Angel M. Galeas, now 19, has been charged with two counts of attempted carjacking and other offenses. He remains jailed without bond.

“This is his first incarceration. He’s obviously terrified,” said Shéhérazade Stewart, an attorney who represented him in court in October. Galeas’s current attorney, Paul Chung, declined to comment.

Police charged the two others — 12 and 15 — in juvenile court.

“As young as they were, it was scary how callous they were,” said Montgomery Detective Brock Dulko, who interviewed the two. “They said they needed a car for the day.”

For the Uber Eats driver, a 33-year-old recent immigrant from Ethiopia, Oct. 26 would prove to be so jarring she ended up spending the next week locked in her basement apartment in Wheaton where she lives alone. That morning, though, she simply got ready to deliver food. On the screen saver of her phone: a photo of her three young children 7,000 miles away, living with her mom in Addis Ababa. Having a profitable day would mean more savings to help bring them to Maryland.

By early afternoon, an order of Don Pollo Peruvian Chicken had her pulling her Hyundai into a strip shopping center off Georgia Avenue served by a sprawling, five-acre parking lot. She got out and walked by three young men staring at her.

“I say, ‘Hi,’ ” she recalled. “For us it’s normal.”

Minutes later, she exited the restaurant, carrying a bag of charbroiled chicken in one hand and her car keys in the other. One of the three approached and pulled out a knife.

“Just give me your car!” he said.

Frozen with panic, the driver heard another voice, turned and saw another man approaching.

“Help me!” she remembered crying out to him. “He wants to take my car!”

The armed man walked off with his two friends as the stranger came directly to her.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “God is with you. Calm down, calm down. Go inside your car.”

She did so, followed by the stranger who was now on the phone with 911.

“You drive,” he told her. “I see them, we follow them.”

4 people, 8 carjackings, 13 robberies: Police nab suspected crime-spree crew

The good Samaritan, a native of Nicaragua who has lived in the Glenmont area for 20 years, had begun his day dropping off one of his seven children at school before settling into his job for the day: power-washing the siding of a home. He’d offered to get lunch for a co-worker and himself at the same Don Pollo.

Now, inside the Uber driver’s Hyundai, he reported to 911 the descriptions and exact movements of the three who attempted the carjacking as they made their way through the parking lot on foot.

Up ahead, the NIH staffer, 27 and juggling remote work with raising a 9-year-old son, placed her family’s grocery bags in her trunk after shopping at Lidl, rolled down her windows and began driving away from the store.

Three people approached. One suddenly reached his hands inside and grabbed her.

“Get out!” she recalled the attacker yelling as he swung her door partially open.

Another man — who remains unknown to police — walked toward her, scaring off the assailant.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he was heard saying to his buddies, according to the NIH worker.

The woman got out, crying and terrified, and ran up to a Hyundai Elantra that pulled up.

“I saw everything,” the intervening construction worker told her. “You’re going to be okay.”

She returned to her Altima, called 911 and described the carjackers as they crossed Randolph Road. A detective nearby in an unmarked car heard about the incident over police radios. He drove over, spotting a trio who matched the description ducking behind a dumpster and removing their coats.

The detective got out and showed his badge, prompting the three to run into an apartment complex where they were eventually captured.

The two victims spoke with the detective near the dumpster. The Uber Eats driver, scared and thinking about her children, pulled out her phone.

“That’s my kids, my life,” she said.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” the detective told her.

But it didn’t set in. For a week, she stayed in her apartment. She spoke by phone to her mother, who urged her to move back to Ethiopia — a nation torn apart by civil war — for what her mom thought would be her own safety.

For victims, the suddenness of being carjacked can extend out the trauma.

One moment, they’re in their car — something often associated with contentment, whether it’s listening to music or smelling a fresh coffee nestled in the cup holder — the next moment there’s a gun or knife stuck in their face, said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“It’s just as bad, really, as an armed person coming into your house,” Herrmann said.

In Montgomery County, victims’ advocate Greg Wims has worked with carjacking survivors for nearly 30 years. It can take days or weeks to fully realize the danger they went through.

“Then the thought really hits: I was almost killed over my car,” said Wims, founder of the Victims’ Rights Foundation.

Girl, 14, sentenced to youth agency custody in carjacking death of Uber Eats driver

Dulko, the investigator on the case, said that as much as he tries to put himself in the shoes of carjacking victims, he finds it difficult to imagine such in-your-face terror. And this case — in a crowded, daytime parking lot with back-to-back victims, “was one of the most brazen I’ve ever seen,” he added.

Dulko said that an hour after she was attacked, the NIH worker was still shaking. The Uber driver, he noted, could easily have been killed.

“These were two hard-working people just trying to get through their days,” he said.

A week after the carjacking, the Uber driver began delivering food again — her doors always locked, her eyes scanning parking lots before getting out. She holds on to her desire to bring her children over, trying to put the attempted carjacking in the context of the only danger she’s faced since arriving in America.

“You have a lot of possibilities to change your life here,” she says.

The NIH worker also views the incident relative to her 9-year-old son, just three years younger than one of those charged.

“I don’t wish him any ill will,” she says of the 12-year-old. “But he has to have some kind of punishment or he won’t change.”

After watching the police catch the three suspects, the construction worker walked back to Don Pollo, got his lunch and drove back to his pressure-washing job. He would like to see more police and more surveillance cameras posted in the area, but called the officers’ quick response to the attempted carjackings “so beautiful.”

Asked to reflect on approaching a young man with a big knife, he said he acted out of the instinctual belief the victim could have been his mother, his sister, one of his children.

“My life here is work, work and more work, and paying bills,” he says. “I believe that when you are able to help, you should help. You can’t stay with your arms crossed and do nothing because that’s almost like contributing to the crime.”

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