They're Stealing More Cars- With Kids Left in Them
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They're Stealing More Cars- With Kids Left in Them

05-20-2021

Imagine how shocked the couple must have been when they walked outside their Greensboro, North Carolina home one morning last month and found a baby in their garden, strapped in a car seat.

The night before, the baby’s father, a delivery driver, had left his car running while he went inside a Valero gas station. In a matter of seconds, two men jumped in the gray Kia Sorento and took off – not realizing that 14-month-old Josea Petty was in the back seat. They ditched the child in the couple’s front yard in his car seat about a mile from the gas station.

Since the pandemic began, 40 children left alone in cars have been abducted during vehicle thefts in which an AMBER Alert was issued. Police say it’s the tip of the iceberg; there’ve been many others in which no alert was needed. Once thieves realized they weren’t just stealing a car, but also a kid, they quickly ditched the child or the car. Police track carjackings but not car thefts with unattended children inside.

As we recognize National Missing Children’s Day on May 25, NCMEC’s President and CEO John F. Clark has an important message for parents everywhere:

“Please, never leave your child alone in your car, not even for a few seconds, not even if you have them in your sight,” said Clark. “The potential for harm is enormous: a speeding get-away car, a car thief afraid of getting caught with a child, or the unthinkable.” 

If you have any information about these suspects, please contact police at to 336-373-1000.

Fortunately, the children in the AMBER Alerts were recovered safely, but the abductions took a toll on their parents.

In the last decade, NCMEC has sent out an average seven AMBER Alerts a year to cellphones, highway signs and other outlets for this type of child abduction. Officials say the spike is being driven by a surge in vehicle thefts during the pandemic, with 873,080 recorded last year, the largest number in more than a decade, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. 

The “dramatic increases” in auto thefts accelerated each month as the pandemic wore on in 2020, particularly the second half of the year. NICB analysts predict the trend will continue this year with even more car thefts. 

Credit: The National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“The pandemic has had significant impacts on society,” said David Glawe, NICB’s president and CEO.  “We have a lot of disenfranchised youth that are unemployed, and outreach programs that are shut down or limited due to COVID. There is frustration and anger in society. We are also seeing public safety resource limitations…..I’ve been studying this for almost 30 years; when you have a perfect storm like this, we see that manifest itself in crimes against automobiles.”

Glawe, former under secretary and chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said auto thefts are an opportunistic crime, and there have certainly been plenty of opportunities with more cars stationary because people are working from home.

Credit: The National Insurance Crime Bureau.

All compelling reasons for you to turn your car off, lock your doors and take your keys – and your kids – with you.

Several weeks after Josea Petty was abducted at the Greensboro gas station, a mother left her 6-year-old in the backseat of her car while she briefly ran inside an apartment complex in another part of the city. A juvenile not even old enough to legally drive jumped into her white Chevy Malibu and sped off. The car and the child were recovered quickly, and no AMBER Alert was needed. The juvenile was charged with larceny and kidnapping.

Earlier this month, in Walcott, Connecticut, a mother left her car running and her two kids, 11 and 5, in the backseat while she went into a gas station to buy gift cards for her son’s teacher. A man jumped into the car, but her 11-year-old son managed to leap out as the car bumped into another vehicle, then sped off with his sister. Her brother can be seen on surveillance video chasing the car and screaming as a cast on his leg unraveled. The car was later found abandoned in the middle of a dark road with the girl asleep in the backseat. 

Surveillance video at gas station shows 11-year-old boy who jumped from the fleeing car and ran, his leg in a cast, after car with his sister inside.

“Lesson learned is even if your child is 11, 12, do not leave the keys in the car with your kids,” the mother said after she was reunited with her daughter. “Your kids have to go in with you at all times.”

So why are so many parents leaving their kids in their cars? One explanation is that with schools and day cares shuttered, families have been juggling kids and jobs. With Covid restrictions in place, it may have seemed easier, even safer, just to leave the child in the car while they dash inside to pay for gas, retrieve something in the home or pick up take-out food. They’d just be a few moments – but that’s how long it takes to steal a car. People picking up or delivering take-out food in particular have been targeted, police said.

“Every minute was excruciating,” said a father, whose van was stolen with his 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter inside while he made a DoorDash delivery in San Francisco one evening in February. An AMBER Alert was issued, and the children were recovered safely four hours later. Four hours can fseel like a lifetime when your child is missing.

In January this year, a Beaverton, Oregon mother left her car running with her 4-year-old son in the backseat while she ran inside a store to grab a few things. A man jumped in the car and took off, but when he realized there was a child in the backseat he returned to the store, scolded the mom, ordered her to take her son out of the car and threatened to report her to police – then fled in her vehicle.

“Moms get really busy; we think we’re just running in for a few seconds,” the mother told reporters, choking up. “It’s a perfect example of letting our guard down. It’s so stupid, and I’ll never do it again.”

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