Last Monday, a 17-year-old had guns pointed at his chest and head in a carjacking at 6:30 p.m. in front of his house in south Minneapolis. The assailant ditched his car several blocks away.
Then on Friday, an armed hit-and-run suspect tried to carjack a woman in north Minneapolis as she was heading to the kickoff of the Twin Cities Salvation Army's annual Red Kettle Campaign, capping a week of more than 50 attempted or successful carjackings in the city.
Residents in Minneapolis, St. Paul and increasingly some suburban communities are experiencing a record surge in armed carjackings, crimes that are terrorizing victims, baffling police and putting motorists on edge.
The Twin Cities joins Chicago, Philadelphia and a long list of metro areas across the country where the number of carjackings has soared during the pandemic. Like in other cities, local authorities are struggling to control the surge, deploying sting operations, "bait cars" and trying new partnerships, but with only a handful of suspects charged.
Police say there is no clear pattern to the crimes, which occur at all hours and in most neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. The victims are young, old, wealthy and poor.
"The nature of the crime is very disconcerting," said Minneapolis Council Member Kevin Reich, who represents part of north Minneapolis. "It's insulting in nature because of the randomness of it. It can happen anywhere."
Minneapolis has recorded nearly 500 carjackings this year, according to police. In 2019, the city logged 101 carjackings. Before that, the city did not break out these crimes specifically because they were so rare.
The attacks are often so swift and random that they are confounding to police. Sometimes assailants approach a driver with a question or seeking directions, police say. Other times the suspects approach more aggressively with masks or hooded sweatshirts, drawing weapons and quickly forcing motorists from their car.
The brief and sometimes violent attacks often leave the victims panicked, without a good description of the suspects, police say.
"These are hard to investigate because the carjacker may be wearing a mask," St. Paul police Sgt. Natalie Davis said. "These are also difficult because the same person may be committing another crime the same night. These are really traumatic for the victim."
Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Garrett Parten said carjacking incidents have hit hardest throughout the city's North Side and the central part of the city, south of Interstate 94 between Hiawatha and Penn avenues.
Parten and other law enforcement officials say the stolen cars are sometimes used in other crimes but are often abandoned not far from where they were taken, usually recovered within a few hours or days. He did not know if there is a growing market for stolen vehicles.
The MPD has assigned two specialty units that are focusing on the issue, Parten said.
In late January, the Police Department and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office conducted a three-day carjacking sting operation using "bait cars" that resulted in 46 arrests. It was not immediately known how many were ultimately charged.
"Those committing these crimes are undermining community safety and perpetuating trauma throughout our city," Mayor Jacob Frey said Friday. "It's unacceptable, and the MPD is working with law enforcement partners to hold offenders accountable immediately."
Even though the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office does not patrol Minneapolis streets, its violent offender task force is now aiding in carjacking investigations and even produced an online video with safety tips.
Of the nearly 500 carjackings in Minneapolis, 54 involved ride-share drivers. After a surge of attacks against Uber and Lyft drivers in October, the city of Minneapolis and one of the companies sent notices warning drivers.
According to the city, the assailants sometimes requested service from a stolen phone or in other cases swarmed the driver in additional stolen vehicles. In some cases, armed assailants took the driver's car, wallet, phone and security code. Some drivers have been pistol-whipped.
Uber sent its Minneapolis drivers a set of instructions and tips in the event a driver is the victim of a carjacking. The company encouraged drivers to immediately give up their cars, not to engage with the carjackers and to call 911.
According to the alert from the company, Uber did not recommend drivers avoid picking up fares in certain neighborhoods or at certain times of the day.
A spokeswoman for Uber said the company has been hearing from law enforcement about a significant increase in carjackings across the country.
"We have worked closely with law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Minneapolis Police Department, to assist with investigations and raise awareness of this issue," she said.
Uber has rolled out new technology in more than 1,000 cities that allows drivers to press a button that immediately sends details like location, license plate, and the make and model of the car to 911 dispatchers.
Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents parts of north Minneapolis, said the past two years of the pandemic have caused a wave of hardship in his ward and a surge in crime, particularly carjackings. He said the city need to do more to bring economic vitality and youth outreach to the area, which will drive down crime.
"It's a livability issue," he said. "We need to hold people accountable, but they also need jobs and housing. Unfortunately, this is a common problem in my neighborhood."
Before 2020, St. Paul rarely saw many carjackings, said Davis, the St. Paul police sergeant. But this year, the city has recorded 84 carjackings.
Most suspects are juveniles, but it not clear if the same group of juveniles is committing the crimes, she said. Occasionally the carjacker will bump into the rear of a car or ask for directions, she said.
Some of the victims are distracted with their cellphones when the suspect ambushes them, Davis said. Either people aren't paying attention to their surroundings or they sit in a running vehicle illuminated by the cellphone, she said.
Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson said he hopes the safety video prevents people from getting carjacked in the first place.
"The video was made to make sure everybody in the county is educated and can be as safe as possible, which is our mission," Hutchinson said.
The latest wave of carjackings is now spreading to the suburbs. On Monday night, a group of armed suspects in masks and ninja outfits approached the driver of a blue Jaguar in a Woodbury Target parking lot and ordered the motorist out of the car.
Police soon arrested a 16-year-old on connection with the carjacking and several robberies that took place in the busy shopping and dining area over a 45-minute period.
The carjacking problem has filled up classes at Valley Self-Defense in Stillwater.
Lead instructor Peter Eisenberg said he now focuses classes on how drivers can protect themselves during a carjacking, especially if a weapon is involved.
Eisenberg said about 50% of his students have experienced a crime and that students come from as far as 45 miles away.
He offers some proven tips, he said, like putting down cellphones and paying attention to your surroundings.
But ultimately, he said, he offers the same advice as law enforcement and Uber: Don't fuss, hand over your car.
"Nothing is worth losing your life over," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-446