Jahlil Thomas is about to become famous. Or, more precisely, infamous.
The former Newark resident, who is now serving a 21-year sentence in a West Virginia federal prison for his role in a carjacking spree, will appear on dozens of billboards, bus placards and flyers all carrying the same message: carjacking is a crime that does not pay.
“Seconds to carjack. Years of hard time” reads one of the billboards, which will be erected at locations in Newark and elsewhere in Essex County beginning Monday. “Carjackers: Your long-term parking awaits,” reads another, whose text is imposed on an image of a grungy prison cell.
“To carjackers, I say this: don’t say we didn’t warn you,” US Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said during a press conference in Newark Monday. “If you’re looking for a ride, look elsewhere.”
Fishman joined representatives from the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the sheriff’s office, the FBI, the State Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, local police from Newark, Belleville and other communities as well as other agencies to announce law enforcement’s latest attempt to curb the county’s skyrocketing carjacking problem. The county is on track to record 400 carjackings this year, double the 2009 total, said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray.
The billboards are being installed to bring home the point that carjacking is a serious crime, a message that Murray and Fishman said is lost on some perpetrators, especially younger ones out for a joyride or who use the vehicles to commit another crime before abandoning them. About 73 percent of carjacked vehicles are recovered, officials said.
“When it comes to carjackers, you have two different groups. Some of the crews are looking for high-end cars to ship overseas, and I can make an educated guess they have some awareness of the penalties,” Murray said. “But at the state level when you see juveniles, 17, 16, sometimes much younger kids, I do have reason to wonder whether they understand what the potential ramifications will be.”
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura also blamed the media for failing to adequately publicize carjacking arrests and prosecutions.
“I think the media has not been as diligent as it used to be. When we had an arrest, it used to appear in the paper, every time,” Fontoura said.
A task force comprising members of local, state and federal law enforcement has been attempting to tackle the problem for the last two years using a variety of methods, including prosecuting juvenile offenders as young as 15 as adults and subjecting them to sentences of up to 20 years. Murray said her office also often tries to kick a carjacking case up to the federal level, where the penalties can be stiffer.
Under a law passed by Congress in the mid-1990s, carjackers who use violent intimidation and who intend to cause death or bodily harm can be prosecuted in federal court, Fishman said.
Fontoura said federal prosecution carries another penalty: the very real possibility of being shipped off to a facility far from Newark, the heart of the carjacking epidemic.
“Get the word out to the homeboys: you’ll be in Texas, you’ll be in upstate New York. You won’t get visitors,” Fontoura said.
Fontoura and other officials blamed the rise in carjacking on an unintended consequence: better anti-theft measures in modern cars that make them difficult to steal unless they’re already running. Essex County, and particularly Newark --which in the 1990s was notoriously dubbed the “car-theft capital of the world" ---- has seen a sharp drop in all types of auto theft. Carjackings, Murray said, while on the rise, are still just a tiny fraction of all thefts.
Officials Monday provided other data about carjacking:
The average value of a carjacked vehicle is a little more than $10,000. While some luxury brands seem especially popular -- BMWs and Mercedes accounted for 13 and 12 percent, respectively, of all carjacked vehicles so far in 2013 -- thieves also favor less upscale vehicles like Toyotas (8 percent) and Hondas (7 percent).
Firearms were involved in 75 percent of carjackings
December is the most popular month for carjackings, Saturday the most popular day. Three-fourths of the crimes occur between 6 pm and 6 am