Metro-East News

Your car’s anti-theft device could actually lead to you being carjacked, police say

Belleville police have two carjacking suspects in custody; one or two still at large

Belleville Police Department's Capt. Bruce Fleshren said police have a man and woman in custody in connection with last night's carjacking. They are looking for either one or two additional male suspects, considered armed and dangerous.
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Belleville Police Department's Capt. Bruce Fleshren said police have a man and woman in custody in connection with last night's carjacking. They are looking for either one or two additional male suspects, considered armed and dangerous.

East St. Louis had 75 carjackings last year, according to the police chief, far outpacing other communities in the metro-east.

In fact, most police departments contacted for this story said they had either one carjacking or none in 2017, including O’Fallon, Fairview Heights, Collinsville and the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department. Figures from other departments were not immediately available.

Belleville was an exception. The city of 42,000 people has seen about 12 carjackings and 45 actual car thefts reported in the past three years, a police captain said.

And carjackings appear to be on the rise:

Two high-profile carjackings were reported in December in and near Belleville, along with two in October and one in August. Earlier this month, two armed carjackings were reported at a motel in Caseyville.

East St. Louis Police Chief Jerry Simon said his city’s proximity to St. Louis makes it a prime target for carjackers.

“From what I understand, people are coming from St. Louis to East St. Louis carjacking people here, and people from East St. Louis are going over there carjacking people. And both sides are trying to stop this dangerous crime,” Simon said.

The city also had 510 car thefts last year, compared with 93 reports of car thefts in Belleville — which includes rental cars, cars loaned for drug-related purposes and cars reported stolen more than once — and 18 in O’Fallon, according to police.

Since December, East St. Louis detectives have been working with St. Louis’ Violent Crime Task Force to address the crime on a regional basis.

Simon says while technology like key fobs and other anti-theft devices has helped reduce the number of stolen cars, it has actually caused carjackings to spike.

“The criminal needs the fob to start the car. To get it, he has to get the individual who has the fob and take it from them,” Simon said. “This potentially puts the victim in harm’s way.”

From what I understand, people are coming from St. Louis to East St. Louis carjacking people here, and people from East St. Louis are going over there carjacking people. And both sides are trying to stop this dangerous crime.

East St. Louis Police Chief Jerry Simon

Belleville Capt. John Moody agreed the need for criminals to grab key fobs to start cars is leading to an increase in carjackings. Before, criminals could tamper with the ignition and take the car. Now, Moody says, the thieves are targeting individuals, and in the process are taking their cell phones, probably to prevent them from calling police.

“Some individuals’ vehicles were taken without permission. Some were rental cars. Some were incidences where somebody loaned a car for drugs and they didn’t get it back. And, in some instances, the individual reported the car stolen multiple times,” Moody said.

Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius said, “We haven’t seen it (carjackings) on the rise.” But he said watching what’s going on elsewhere does cause him some concern. During Christmas, Gailius said more officers were on duty around the mall and shopping areas to create a high visibility to deter crime.

O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook said he feels pretty fortunate to be able to report that this crime “doesn’t appear to be happening in O’Fallon.”

“It’s happening all around us,” he said.

Van Hook said people are still leaving their cars unattended and/or running, trying to warm them before they get in. Anyone doing this is creating an opportunity for a criminal to take their vehicle, he said.

He added that the reported carjackings he has heard about “appear to be more aggressive and premeditated.”

Van Hook knows that although this particular crime is not occurring in O’Fallon, it can occur anywhere at anytime and he wants to work with surrounding police agencies to hopefully help stop carjackings everywhere.

“Law enforcement agencies are having to come together to see how we can share information and help each other out. Just because it’s not happening in O’Fallon doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be seated at the table trying to figure something out. We have to play an active role,” he said.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said he is also not seeing an increase in carjackings in the county.

“We don’t have that many. We had one on Dec. 20 on Freedom Drive where the suspects shot at the woman. No one was injured and no one was arrested in that incident,” Watson said.

The Sheriff’s Department said a woman had started her car a few minutes before 7 a.m. When she walked out of her home, she saw two people sitting in a vehicle that was backed into a driveway across the street.

When she got into her 2011 Chevrolet Camaro, two men came from the parked car to the driver’s door. They both pointed a handgun at her.

Law enforcement agencies are having to come together to see how we can share information and help each other out. Just because it’s not happening in O’Fallon doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be seated at the table, trying to figure something out. We have to play an active role.

O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook

The woman drove backward, hitting a mailbox and another car as the men fired their guns at her. She was able to drive away uninjured.

Others reported by police included:

▪  Another one in December, where an armed carjacking took place around 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night in the 100 block of Lauren Circle in Belleville.

A woman told police someone had approached her with a black handgun and demanded her wallet and keys.

The woman said the man pulled up behind her in the parking lot in a white car with tinted windows. As she got to her front door, he approached her with the gun. She handed over her keys and he fled in her black Hyundai Sonata.

▪  In October, police reported an armed carjacking in the 400 block of North High Street in Belleville.

A victim told police he was getting into his car when he was approached by a man he did not know. The man asked the victim for a lighter, and when the victim reached into his car to get one, he felt an “object” pressed against his lower back.

The suspect asked for the man’s keys. He complied and the suspect fled the area in the victim’s car. The victim was not injured.

▪  Also in October, two men carjacked a woman in Belleville’s Walmart parking lot, drove off with her car and crashed in East St. Louis after a police chase, police say. A young man approached a woman as she was getting into her car.

He was carrying a black handgun and told her to give him her keys, police said. She did so and the man got into the driver’s seat. Another black male got into the passenger seat before they drove off.

▪  In August, a Belleville mother was carjacked with her 6-month-old and 3-year-old inside her car. The thieves allowed the 23-year-old to remove her children before they drove off in her vehicle.

The two men took the woman’s 2009 Silver Pontiac G6 at gunpoint in the 2600 block of Eastview Drive. Swansea police reported a similar crime just 10 minutes before.

The car had a GPS unit inside, and law enforcement officials were able to locate it in the Glen Carbon area before leading police on a high-speed chase across the Interstate 270 bridge into Missouri.

The vehicle was found abandoned in the Soulard Market area in St. Louis.

▪  Earlier this month, police said two armed men carjacked a woman the parking lot of a Caseyville motel — the second carjacking at that location in three days.

The woman told police she was in a parking spot at the Motel 6 on Old Country Inn Drive around 11:20 p.m. when two men pulled up behind her in a dark-colored sedan. As she was stuck in the parking spot, one of the masked men approached her car with what she thought was a machine gun. He told her to exit the car or he would kill her.

She complied and the men drove off. She was not hurt.

Generally speaking, when a criminal carjacks a vehicle, it’s to go and do a quick crime elsewhere and the car is abandoned and quickly found, Watson said.

With new technology like On Star, which will shut the vehicle off, and key fobs instead of keys, the criminal knows he has a short period of time.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson

“Over in St. Louis, they carjacked a pickup truck to do a smash and grab because they needed something big to load up. They are not joy riding in these vehicles anymore,” he said. “With new technology like OnStar, which will shut the vehicle off, and key fobs instead of keys, the criminal knows he has a short period of time.”

Collinsville Lt. Eric Herman said the city averages about one carjacking a year. “Our records show we had three cases related to vehicular hijackings from January 2015 through January 2017.”

Illinois State Police Trooper Calvin Dye said ISP runs into carjackings occasionally, but not as much as city or county police because their primary patrols are on interstates and highways. But it can happen.

“Generally speaking, a car pulls up on another vehicle and flourishes a weapon. And normally the individuals involved know each other,” he said.

“Most car thieves have been doing this crime since junior high school. A few years later, when they become teenagers, they have gotten really good at it. This is what they do for a living and they are quick with it,” Dye said.

Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503

At a glance

Here’s how to prevent becoming a carjacking victim, according to St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson:

  • Motorists should always be aware their surroundings
  • Don’t park in dark areas
  • Don’t walk to your car while talking on a cellphone: “You will be distracted by your phone. I see people walking to their cars messing with their phones or talking on them. Criminals look for opportunity,” Watson said.
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