A New Terror On The Road

Pamela Basu had no reason to believe she was in danger. The 34-year-old research chemist was driving her daughter, Sarina, to preschool on a warm morning last September when two young men approached her gold BMW at a stop sign one block from her suburban Maryland home. They forced her from the car and sped away, but Basu's left arm became ensnared in the harness strap of her seat belt. She was dragged for nearly two miles as her assailants swerved into a barbedwire fence in an apparent attempt to dislodge her. Before finally ridding themselves of the fatally injured woman, they stopped to toss her 22-month-old daughter from the car. She was found, miraculously unhurt, still strapped in her car seat. Two suspects were arrested 90 minutes later and charged with first-degree murder.

Barely 1 percent of all auto thefts-1.7 million in 1991-are carjackings. But a recent spate of armed automobile robberies has nonetheless rattled motorists who think of their cars as freewheeling havens from the violent crime that lurks beyond the headlights. A recent FBI study estimates that carjackings have increased exponentially in the last three years, with more than 40,000 committed in the last 22 months nationwide-an average of more than 60 a day. Cars have been commandeered just about anyplace motorists congregate, including highway rest stops, service stations, car washes, red lights and shopping-mall parking lots.

Routine errands have become a tense exercise in some communities. Earlier this month Gail Shollar, 35, and her 3-year-old daughter, Andrea, were abducted from a Piscataway, N.J., superm their Plymouth van. Authorities discovered Andrea on the lawn of a day-care center the next morning unharmed. But three days later Shollar was found stabbed to death near the abandoned van in a ditch about a mile south of the shopping center. A 23-year-old man has been arrested and charged with murder. "I used to be in my own little world when I was in my car," says Alice Rogers, a 34-year-old suburban Philadelphia office manager, shocked by Shollar's murder. "But not anymore."

The underlying reasons for the upsurge aren't clear. Some security experts say improvements in alarm systems and other antitheft technology have made it more difficult for thieves to swipe cars using traditional, surreptitious methods. The market for hot cars remains extremely lucrative: a stolen vehicle shipped overseas can double in value; parts from luxury models can bring three or four times the total worth of a car. "Thieves are grabbing cars on the run and dispensing with the motorists by any means necessary," says Ed Moore, owner of Security Service Systems in Los Angeles. But police say that most professional auto boosters avoid violence. They attribute carjackings to joy-riding kids who want money from the driver or crooks who use the vehicles to commit other crimes. Others say the victimization of affluent, white suburbanites has led to the vast hyping of a marginal crime story. "It's been going on since the first car was built," says Sgt. Christopher Buck of the Detroit police.

Nevertheless, some recent episodes have been both hair-raising and tragicomic. Late last year 46-year-old Gloria Yellin was getting into her 1990 Nissan Maxima in New Hyde Park, N.Y., when she was grabbed from behind by an armed man who jumped in and drove away without her. She quickly reached him on her car phone, and he offered to return the vehicle for $2,000. A meeting was set up. The man showed, and so did the police. It ended in a shoot-out that critically wounded the suspect and injured a detective. Late this October in the Bronx, a 20-year-old man was forced from his car at gunpoint, taken to the roof of an apartment building and pushed over the side. He managed to grab the end of a scaffold rope and dangled 19 stories up until his rescue about 45 minutes later.

The shocking death of Pamela Basu spurred a series of official actions to cope with carjacking. Within days of her murder, the D.C. City Council passed a law mandating 15-year prison sentences for armed carjackers. Last month President Bush signed a law that makes carjacking a federal crime carrying a life sentence if it leads to someone's death. Motorists are scrambling for their own protection. At Auto One stores in Detroit, customers can buy a device that silently signals a monitoring station if a car is moved while the alarm system is on. Others want security systems equipped with a "panic button" that activates a siren and flashing lights from inside a car. There's also increased interest in bullet-resistant glass. Jittery motorists hope these measures will buy them some safety until law enforcement can put the brakes on a singularly frightening crime.