'Carjackings' Violent Form of Auto Theft, Reported on the Rise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The escape of a convict who allegedly killed a motorist as he fled police in the Gaslamp Quarter this week was a new twist on a spreading crime: Carjacking.

San Diego and other major cities have reported an increase during the past three years in this terrifying version of car theft, a behind-the-wheel mugging that can leave a hapless driver stranded, injured or dead.

Officials say the crime has hopscotched America from east to west. In Los Angeles, most local police agencies and the FBI do not compile statistics on carjacking, but Los Angeles Police Detective Donald Hrycyk estimated that the crime accounts for 7% of all robberies. There were about 85 carjackings in the Van Nuys area this year as of Sept. 1, according to the Van Nuys Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

"This is a new phenomenon for us," said John Hoost, an FBI special agent in Los Angeles.

This year, officials realized that the crime is becoming much more widespread, said Michael Kortan, an FBI special agent and spokesman in Washington. But the agency has no reliable statistics because not all cities monitor the crime separately.

"We began to survey our field divisions and we began to see for the first time that this is, indeed, occurring around the country," Kortan said. "It's frustrating that we can't put a finger on this and have accurate statistics. But violent crime is up and a lot of these related offenses are up."

The increase in carjacking has been fueled, in part, by the popularity of anti-theft devices, some officials say. As more and more people use car alarms and steering-wheel locks, frustrated car thieves take more drastic measures, police say.

"People are becoming very good at protecting their cars when they are not around," said Lt. Michael Wolfe of the La Mesa Police Department. "Now we have a car with keys in the ignition, ready to go, and it only takes someone to go up with a weapon and demand the car. It's very quick."

Carjacking is increasing in San Diego, where more than 170 such crimes have occurred this year. And this week, authorities grappled with the first fatal carjacking in the county.

Typically, as in the deadly case Monday, the thief puts a gun to the head of the driver. Carjackers have also used knives, screwdrivers and baseball bats. Some have staged "bump and run" accidents--fender benders that get the unwitting driver out of the car.

Monday night's incident, which police say involved a jail escapee, was "definitely not the norm," said Sgt. John Leas of the San Diego Police Department's robbery unit. "It falls within (the definition of) a carjacking but it was really a form of escape for a very serious criminal. That normally wouldn't be what we are seeing throughout San Diego."

The escapee, Johnaton George, allegedly freed himself from chains and overpowered a sheriff's deputy. Police say George then ran to a taxi driver and bit his face as he struggled to commandeer the taxi. Thwarted, George ran off.

According to police reports, he approached a 1989 Honda Civic stopped at a red light with two men inside. He ordered the men to give him the car. But the driver, Michael (Mick) Champion, 28, refused.

Champion and his passenger, Mark Dodd, had seen George assault the taxi driver and they thought he was trying to mug him, Dodd said.

Dodd, 22, gave this account of the incident that ended in Champion's death:

As the two sat "contemplating going back" to help the taxi driver, George ran up, Dodd said.

Neither he nor Champion realized that George had a gun.

"We had just rolled to a stop and (the assailant) jumped onto the driver's side. He tried to leap inside the car. The door was locked but the window was down all the way and he was hanging in with one arm," Dodd said. "He starts ordering . . . he says, 'Gimme the car, man. Gimme the car.'

"Mick kind of underevaluated the situation. It appeared that the guy was a vagrant. We couldn't have foreseen where he was coming from, that he had escaped from a sheriff's van. There was no time to interpret. It just looked like a potentially physical conflict.

"Mick said: 'No. Go away, get off.' " Dodd recounted. "At which point he (the gunman) takes this other arm and pulls out a handgun and shoots him point blank, right in the head. It was a tremendous explosion. . . . Panic took over. I remember trying to feel around the door for the lock. I found it, pulled it up and ran away from the car as fast as I could.

"I didn't look back. In my heart, I knew Mick was gone that instant."

In the vast majority of carjacking cases here, the drivers have complied with the robbers' demands. Usually, they are left standing by the side of the road, watching in shock as a stranger drives off in their vehicle. Champion's reaction may have cost him his life, police say.

George is still at large. Sheriff's deputies say he is considered "very, very dangerous" and they are continuing to search for him.

Incidents of carjacking are difficult for police to prevent because they are random and seem to follow no pattern.

"It's not like you can do something proactively," Leas said. "These things are popping up all over the city. We are not seeing the same suspects, not the same victims. There's nothing really consistent to grab onto and do good police work."

About 80% of cars hijacked in San Diego are found within one week, he said. In Van Nuys, Detective Mel Arnold, said 85% are recovered. Elsewhere in the nation, however, the cars often find their way to "chop shops," where the vehicle is broken down and the parts are sold.

In San Diego County, unlike in many other urban areas, carjackers do not seem to prefer expensive cars. Here, police say, any vehicle can be a target. In La Mesa, for instance, where police recently reported a spate of five carjackings, the last vehicle taken was a 1972 Chevrolet.

On Monday--the day Champion was killed--the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to make armed carjacking a federal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Sponsors of the bill predict that the Senate will also approve it.

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