Spike in carjackings during pandemic spurred regional crackdown

Details from the case of two D.C. men charged last week for carjacking and assault highlight the reason the region’s top prosecutors are banding together to take on the crime, which has seen a sharp increase since the start of the pandemic.

Rashaun Onley and Elijah Greene-Parker face more than 14 charges in Maryland District Court for an afternoon of carjacking one vehicle after another in both Arlington and Montgomery counties, according to charging documents.

In multiple instances, the men “displayed handguns, demanded money” and took the vehicles. The case highlights how the crime of carjacking can cross through multiple jurisdictions.

“Just last month, we had three individuals plead guilty in federal court to having committed eight armed carjackings in Washington, D.C. and Maryland during a 12-hour span. They often used one carjacked vehicle to carjack another vehicle. Therefore, what we are faced with is a multi-jurisdictional problem that requires a multi-jurisdictional approach to solve,” said U.S. Attorney for D.C Channing Phillips.

D.C. has seen 129 carjackings so far this year, Phillips said while speaking with his regional counterparts at a news conference to announce the carjacking task force.

In the high-profile case of two teen girls who passersby recorded taking 66-year-old Mohommad Anwar’s car in front of Nationals Park on March 23, the second defendant is considering a plea deal. Attorney Coury Mascagni told Judge Lynn Leibovitz he plans to review a plea offer from the government with his 13-year-old client, but did not reveal what the offer proposed. A 15-year-old girl, also unidentified due to her age, pleaded guilty to felony murder after taking a plea deal in the deadly carjacking that killed the Springfield, Virginia, Uber Eats driver.

The majority of cases where prosecutors brought charges in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also involved teens, many of whom were armed.

“It’s very concerning because the activity that they’re engaged in is deadly,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy. “I mean, you’re talking about confronting someone with a gun. And you’re talking about very young people engaged in that behavior. We have seen a decrease over the last few months as schools have opened up, and the number of young people being arrested for carjacking.”

However, Braveboy agreed with State’s Attorney John McCarthy that there does not appear to be an organized effort.

“I will tell you from the cases that we have in Montgomery County, these are not cars that are being taken to chop shops or resold in most instances,” McCarthy said. “I don’t want to downgrade the seriousness of what’s going on, but a lot of times they seem to be carjacking the cars to joy ride; drive around for a couple of days and then abandon them.”

Interestingly, as many businesses closed at the start of the pandemic, Braveboy said in her county they saw a decrease in commercial robberies while simultaneously watching the instances of reported carjackings go up. She said she believes this is due in part to teens not having to be in school or having the ability to gather at a community center or work a part-time job to spend their time.

While it may start as rebellious teenage behavior, it can be dangerous and carry a heavy consequence, which is what U.S. Attorney for Maryland Jonathan Lenzner wanted to underscore.

“It is important to remember that these defendants are not just stealing cars. They are assaulting law-abiding citizens, sticking guns in their faces, and creating traumatic memories, which these victims and the communities will be haunted by for a long time beyond just the crime,” he said.

Phillips noted that in D.C. there is a robust carjacking statute that allows for prosecutors to seek no less than seven years in prison for those who are convicted, and 15 for those who took a car by force while armed.

“So those who choose to engage in these dangerous crimes should be forewarned that the penalties and consequences are stiff, particularly when a firearm is used to commit the offense,” Phillips said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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