By Brielle Conwell and Madeline Pimlott
Around 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday last June, Gio Vamninorena was attacked and carjacked while going to his car to retrieve a pack of cigarettes for a friend near the corner of North California Avenue and West Augusta Boulevard in the Ukrainian Village.
Vamninorena said he had been hanging out at a friend’s house the night of the incident. He had gone out to his 2015 Honda Civic and was looking for his keys when three men approached him from behind. They told him to give them his belongings and keys and that they were going to take his vehicle. Vamninorena said that he was angry, but he did not argue.
“At the time, my first son was just born,” Vamninorena said. “So for me, the last thing on my mind was the car or anything that I did have, that’s all replaceable. It wasn’t really that important at the moment.”
According to the Chicago Data Portal, Chicago had a 31% increase in carjackings in just one year following the start of the pandemic, between 2020 and 2021. There were a total 1,852 carjackings reported in 2021 and Chicago’s numbers are higher than every other large city. Carjackings in 2021 are the highest they’ve been in 20 years and had actually been on a decline since 2001.
But that changed at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Rocco Wlodarek and Marvin Cooks of University of Illinois at Chicago’s Transportation Services encourage patience and staying safe in dealing with carjackers. Wlodarek said that about 80% of the time a thief’s “goal is the property, not the person.” He advises victims to escape the situation as quickly as possible and “let material things go under those circumstances when faced with violence.”
“If they’re asking for your things, you want to comply,” Cooks said. “You’re thinking about trying to get home and trying to be safe.”
Wlodarek said an increase in desperation among offenders during the pandemic is a possible effect on the rise in carjackings. Cooks cited “lack of resources” as a potential factor.
Don McCarty, an associate professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice at UIC, said he believes the rise in carjackings during the pandemic is closely related to inconsistencies and fluctuations in public schooling over the course of the past couple of years during the pandemic.
McCarty pointed out that a majority of carjackings tend to be carried out by juveniles and while school is back to normal now, there were long periods of time when kids were unable to attend school.
“Whenever we have these big tumultuous events, there are always unintended consequences,” McCarty said. “And I think certainly one of those has been, you know, the lack of supervision. The lack of structure for young people.”
On April 1, the Chicago Police Department reported 72 arrests for carjacking so far this year. Among those arrests, 57% of offenders have been juveniles.
When reflecting on being carjacked, Vamninorena said he remembered his attackers being young. He guessed that two of them were in their late teens with the third being a bit older, probably in his early 20s.
Vamninorena said his car was recovered the morning after the carjacking near Des Plaines. He said the car was found crashed and contained liquor bottles and marijuana and it appeared to have been a joyriding incident.
McCarty said that often there is no sophisticated goal in carjackings. These offenders, mostly juveniles, are performing these crimes as a way to have fun or to show off for their peers.
“Sometimes it’s a means to another offense, but sometimes it’s a means to just, you know, to have fun,” he said. “And again, I know, it’s weird to put it that way. But, oftentimes that’s what it translates to.”
Vamninorena said he wishes people would be more aware and cautious of their surroundings. He said that his family has lived in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood for over 40 years, himself 26 years, and he acknowledges the improvements that the neighborhood has experienced, but, he said people still need to watch their backs.
“With so many bars that we have around here, sometimes you get some stragglers, and people you know, just being annoying,” he said. “It does arise some tension and you always have to be on guard with anything that goes on.”
Wlodarek said people are more vulnerable to carjackings within the last 15 feet before entering a vehicle as well as at gas stations, because their actions are “completely predictable” when entering, exiting, and approaching a car.
“You’re thinking about packing stuff into the back of your car, getting your keys out of your pocket or your purse, you’re not completely invested in what’s around you at those moments,” he said. “That’s why those are key areas where people get taken advantage of.”
Looking back on the assault, Vamninorena said he is glad that he didn’t fight back and he encourages others to be sensible if they are ever in a similar situation. He said that being raised in the neighborhood and environment he was in has made him more aware of the risks and precautions that people should take in the city. He said he believes that an overall lack of respect and awareness from the younger generations has contributed to the rise in carjackings.
“That’s just because they were brought up differently, and they don’t really know the circumstances of what might be able to happen without being able to actually be street smart,” he said. “Which I feel like a lot of people nowadays in this generation don’t really have. Which I feel like that does credit toward the actual juvenile delinquency going up.”
Brielle Conwell discusses how this three-part carjacking project was reported.