Carjackings plagued this city during the 1990s, terrifying residents and visitors and leading Newark to be dubbed the carjacking capital of America.
Nearly 20 years later, carjacking has come back with a vengeance, spurred in part by changes in cars that are supposed to make them more difficult to steal when parked, law enforcement officials said.
To help stanch what U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman calls an “epidemic,” local, state and federal authorities are redoubling a multi-agency effort to halt carjackings. On Monday, they announced a campaign that places billboards, some depicting the mug shot of a carjacker and the number of years he’s spending in federal prison, in Newark and surrounding cities.
Authorities are trying to reiterate to would-be criminals that carjacking can be a federal crime. With a federal conviction comes a long prison sentence far from New Jersey and no chance of parole. Authorities also are charging teenagers accused of carjacking as adults.
“You shouldn’t have to worry every time you get in your car that someone is going to put a gun to your head,” Fishman said at a news conference.
As of July 31, there were 282 carjackings in Essex County, which includes Newark, this year, compared to last year’s 416.
One major change from the carjacking wave of the 1990s is that many new cars are equipped with technology that makes them much more difficult to jimmy and steal while parked. Things like pushbutton ignitions make it much more difficult to take a car if it is not on or if the key isn’t there.
Authorities said reasons for carjackings vary. Some cars are taken by young people looking to joyride. Others are used to ferry people to a place where they’re planning to commit another crime. Cars that are in demand are taken at gunpoint and shipped overseas, where they are sold.
Fishman’s office prosecuted a case this year where $6 million worth of stolen cars were shipped to West Africa. About 10 percent of those recovered were carjacked.
Mercedes was the vehicle of choice, accounting for 12 percent of all carjackings, followed by BMW at 11 percent and Honda and Nissan tied at 7 percent.
Fishman said his office has prosecuted 37 defendants on federal carjacking charges. They include Jahlil Thomas, 24, who was last year sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison. Now his face, still bearing teenage acne scars, looks down from a billboard high above his hometown.