The cost of a carjacking

For the past few months, Tonia Bowman-Middlebrook has worked her eight-hour shift at the Minneapolis car pound and taken on an additional responsibility: letting people know their hijacked vehicle is available for pickup.

“It’s unbelievable how many of these stolen cars we’re taking,” said Bowman-Middlebrook, who has worked in the field for nearly six years. “In my shift, I could do 15 by myself.”

Amid an increase in carjackings in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis towed recovered vehicles to the lot west of downtown after police finished processing them for evidence.

During the calls, car owners seem happy to hear they can get their cars back, Bowman-Middlebrook said, but once they get to the service window, the trauma they’ve gone through is hard to miss. Between the sometimes visible bruises and the stories shared by the victims, “you can tell it’s not something they make up,” she said. “It’s real. It’s scary.”

A visit to the impound lot is just one of the many lingering costs that victims of carjacking face. Last year, such crimes exploded in Minneapolis, with more than 640 attempted or successful carjackings in 2021, averaging more than two a day. The crimes were brazen and violent, and among the victims, the physical and emotional scars are long-lasting. And financial impositions add insult to injury, they say.

Trauma, then towing costs

Kirsten DeHaven, who uses the pronouns they/them, was the victim of a carjacking in early January and left battered in the snow with a lower orbital fracture in her left eye.

They were sitting in their car, letting it warm up, when an SUV pulled up next to them on a one-way street in downtown Minneapolis. Two boys emerged – aged 15 or 16, DeHaven estimated.

Suddenly, one of the boys opened the front passenger side door and told DeHaven that they were taking DeHaven’s car, a premium model.

DeHaven recalled a threat: “If you don’t get away with it, we’ll kill you. I’ve got a gun.” Not knowing what to do, DeHaven froze. That’s when the second teenager opened the driver’s side door.

The boys pulled DeHaven out of the car and someone hit him in the eye with something cold and hard. DeHaven thought it might be a gun.

DeHaven thought they were going to die. But after the suspects jumped into DeHaven’s car, the choke was released and everyone was gone. People had taken DeHaven’s car and phone.

Police told DeHaven that within minutes of their own assault, 911 calls came from people describing DeHaven’s car in association with other nearby carjackings and robberies. Although police located the unoccupied vehicle and DeHaven’s phone that night, investigators held both for processing.

In the weeks that followed, DeHaven, a Ph.D. candidate in chiropractic medicine, canceled their tutoring appointments and teaching assistant shifts. They couldn’t work. They suspended all their classes.

It would be at least a month, maybe two, before DeHaven got his car back, an officer told them. Fortunately, after several calls to the Minneapolis police, the date came sooner.

What the police didn’t tell DeHaven was that DeHaven would have to pay to get the car. In late January, the pound charged them about $145 in towing fees to free him.

“We were kind of like, ‘What? We didn’t break any laws,'” DeHaven said. “”The law has been broken on me. Why do I have to pay for something that shouldn’t have happened?”

When DeHaven raised concerns about the fees, their rep referred them to Cornerstone, a Bloomington-based nonprofit that supports victims of abuse, who reimbursed them. If an auto shop finds that the mechanical damage to the car is more than DeHaven’s $500 auto insurance deductible, DeHaven hopes Cornerstone can cover the deductible as well.

No one offered Marie and Worth an option like Cornerstone when they retrieved their car from the field last spring. The couple asked to be identified by their middle names for safety.

They paid the full cost of towing – after more than a month without their car – then paid around $4,000 to cover the cost of repairs. They had auto insurance, but it didn’t include collateral protection.

Marie was 34 weeks pregnant at the time, and the couple had just parked their car on a northeast Minneapolis street and started walking to a friend’s house for Easter brunch. Another car pulled up in front of theirs, but they assumed the occupants lived across the street.

Realizing that Worth had forgotten his mask, the two returned to the car. It was then that a teenager from the other vehicle approached them at gunpoint. He left in their car, a base model.

Using video captured from a 360 camera on a nearby car, authorities arrested and prosecuted a 14-year-old boy for their carjacking. They found the car abandoned in Columbia Heights. Without the registration, the couple are unsure whether their case would have been resolved.

Beyond violent thefts, accidents

A 24-year-old Twin Cities resident who spoke on condition of anonymity stopped pursuing updates relevant to the investigation about his own experience with the wave of carjackings. He was not accosted for his vehicle, but boned by carjackers on a residential street near Minnehaha Regional Park shortly after New Years Day.

It was 11 a.m. and there was fresh snow on the ground. He was at a stop sign when, out of the corner of his right eye, he noticed a Ford pickup truck approaching at full speed, “steering”.

Within seconds, everything went blank. His airbags deployed. The driver of the van crashed into the passenger side of his car. He stumbled out and headed for the truck to retrieve the driver’s insurance information.

But three boys jumped out of the car and ran.

“I thought they were scared,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

The police told him that the van had recently been hijacked. His case was closed as a hit-and-run.

Since the accident, he avoids being in a car as much as possible. His car insurance will cover the cost of the repairs, but in the meantime he works from home and gets groceries delivered. He finds it difficult to talk about the incident because it is a trigger.

Yet he worries about the future of the children who hit him.

“Overall, I have no anger towards them, really,” he said. “I really hope these kids are able, in the future or the near future, to not live a life that puts you in the criminal justice system even though you’re probably not that bad; you just did something so stupid.”

Rising carjackings in the Twin Cities and some suburban communities have led authorities to devote additional resources to prosecuting crimes. In December, Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman pledged to prosecute such cases to “the full extent of the law.”

The Twin Cities have even seen carjacking cases go to federal court. Last month, a 25-year-old woman was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for her role in a series of them. Since it is rare for juvenile cases to end up in federal court, it is unlikely that such prosecutions will become the norm.

In 2021, more than half of the 149 carjacking cases referred to the Hennepin County District Attorney’s Office involved juvenile offenders. So far, the same trend holds true for 2022.

When Marie and Worth had the opportunity to speak in the case against the 14-year-old who hijacked them, they did not seek to have him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Instead, they considered the opposite. Prosecutors wanted to give him extended juvenile jurisdiction, the couple said, meaning that until he turned 21, the court could send the teenager to adult prison if he violated certain conditions.

“We actually objected to that,” Worth said, “just because we thought it was way off. … We weren’t exactly sure that was the best rehab, having that thing hanging over out of his head for the next, like, eight years.”

Kirsten DeHaven dealt with similar thoughts while pondering what accountability might look like in their own case. To their knowledge, no one has been arrested for their attack.

For now, they are thinking of accountability in a broader sense.

“There needs to be more restorative justice built into the system, more accountability discussions and processes to really understand the impact these crimes have on the community,” they said.

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