On a sunny January afternoon, Amy Blumenthal drove to her Chicago home after picking up groceries. She turned off a street and into an alley, backed her car into her garage and started unloading the bags.
"All of a sudden, I heard something and looked up and there was a boy with a COVID mask on holding a gun just inches from my face," Blumenthal says. He demanded she hand over her keys. Another young male, also wearing a mask, told her to hurry up.
In shock, she fumbled as she complied — they let her keep her house keys. Then they jumped in the car and sped off. Chicago police officers noticed their erratic driving, gave chase and the two were quickly arrested after crashing the vehicle into a building.
The robbery had left her shaken, but learning more about who they were left her stunned: They were just 15 and 13 years old.
"That made it sadder and scarier because teenagers' ability to control their impulses and to think logically is so much less (than adults), it makes it scarier to have a 13-year-old with a gun," Blumenthal says. "It could have ended much differently."
The FBI does not gather national data for vehicular hijackings, but many individual cities do. They say the numbers have exploded during the pandemic and show no signs of letting up.
Even more critical are the number of young car thieves, some as young as 12 or 13. In Minneapolis, for example, there were 405 carjackings last year — more than triple the number in 2019. The suspects arrested were often juveniles between the ages of 11 and 17.
Other cities saw huge increases too, including New Orleans; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Washington, D.C. Last year in Chicago, there were 1,400 carjackings. In early December, police released a video of one deadly encounter. A retired firefighter was killed in a shootout with four suspects — one of them 15 years old.
Chicago police say juveniles were involved in nearly half of the incidents last year, with the largest group a mix of juveniles and young adults between 15 and 20 years old.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says it's a top concern for her and the Chicago Police Department and that it must be addressed holistically. That means filing charges against those who commit crimes. But she says it's also important to address the roots of this behavior to keep them out of the criminal justice system long-term.
"We've got to intervene with these kids, there's no question," Lightfoot says, "but we've got to bring the message to the young people and let them know that if they decide to go into this direction — to rob someone at gunpoint — that we have to and will hold them accountable."
Across the country, frightened residents call the carjacking surge an epidemic and they want to know what's behind it and why it's occurring now. Police say it's not just one thing, that instead there are myriad reasons.
The economic impact of the pandemic on hard-hit neighborhoods may be a factor. Police say because everyone is covering their faces, it gives carjackers an edge.
"Sometimes, it's about the thrill of a joyride," says Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, "or it may be stealing a car in order to commit other crimes like robbery or shootings anonymously."
Christian Terry has a few ideas. He's the program director of CHAMPS — an organization that mentors African American and Latinx boys and young men. Terry, 21, was one of the original members of the group when he was 14 and a high school freshman.
He credits the mentoring he received with turning his life around. Although CHAMPS has only been able to meet virtually during the pandemic, Terry says some of the young men in the program have expressed concerns about the carjackings.
"Some said they are afraid for their mothers, who have to get up early and go out to work," says Terry. "Some are just saying 'Man, these carjackings are only happening because youth is bored right now. They don't have anything else to do and they think it's a game.' They don't really know how serious it is till they truly get in trouble."
Five years ago, a change in Illinois law ended the automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court when a weapon is used in a crime. An adult found guilty of carjacking could receive up to 15 years in prison and even more if a weapon is used.
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, says her office filed charges in 80% of the carjacking cases involving juveniles last year. A judge decides what happens next. Whether, for example, a young person is detained, released to parents, or ordered to participate in counseling.
"It's part of juvenile court's mandate to look at young people and see: one, how do we hold them accountable for their actions; and two, what is it that they need," says Foxx. "If you've got a 12-year-old or 11-year-old or 14-year-old engaging in misbehavior, there is something wrong."
In response to the increase in carjackings, Chicago's police department expanded a task force focusing on the crime, concerned residents regularly meet up at gas stations that are frequent targets to prevent any carjackings there and the city reached out to youth organizations for help.
Vondale Singleton, the founder of the CHAMPS program, says mentoring is particularly important during the pandemic because there has been so much disruption with schools, sports and other activities for young people.
"When they're in our care, we don't have or see these incidents of violence of crime or disrespect because we know how to treat these young men; we know how to educate and talk (with them)," Singleton says.
For the two teenagers who forced Amy Blumenthal to turn over her car keys, it's a different story. The 13-year-old holding the gun was charged with aggravated vehicular hijacking. Prosecutors charged the 15-year-old with a misdemeanor: criminal trespass to vehicles.
A plea deal is in the works and Blumenthal says she asked if she could have a conversation with them virtually.
"I am hoping that they are young enough that this scares the daylights out of them in a way that leads to good change," she says.