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Saturday, November 26, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Carjacking Reports Increase In Area -- Police Told Of Five Incidents Over Thanksgiving Holiday

Until the '90s, "carjacking" didn't exist.

Then, largely because of what happened to people like Ruth Wahl in Detroit, a new word was coined, new laws were passed and a new crime became part of the American landscape.

Before the 1990s, cars were hijacked or simply stolen.

But in 1991, Wahl, a 22-year-old Detroit cashier, and some friends went out in her new car and ended up on a deserted street. Some men appeared in a brown station wagon, chased Wahl and her friends. They finally stopped her, shot and killed her, then took her car.

Suddenly, a crime that hadn't even existed a year earlier was causing nationwide anguish. Detroit alone reported 205 carjackings in one 21-day period.

In 1992, Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to use a weapon to steal a motor vehicle that's been shipped through interstate commerce "through force or violence or intimidation."

Throughout 1993, articles about carjackings appeared at the rate of more than one a week in newspapers throughout the country.

Most often in Los Angeles

By 1994, the Department of Justice was concluding that 177,500 attempted carjackings had been reported between 1987 and 1992, 52 percent of them were successful and Los Angeles was the carjacking capital, with 7,187 reported in a single year.

Somehow, the Seattle area seemed mostly to escape the blight. In fact it wasn't until February 1993 that the first carjacking was prosecuted.

Seattle police also note that a number of carjackings ultimately turn out to be related to prostitution and drug deals. Seattle had 23 reported carjackings in 1992. (No 1993 figures were available.)

But the Seattle area's fate apparently changed over the Thanksgiving holiday: Police received five carjacking reports in less than 24 hours.

After investigation, only one of them, however, fit the classic pattern or the definition of carjacking.

In one incident about 8 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, a man and woman said they had been driving in the 2600 block of East Alder Street and were assaulted.

Both the man and woman refused to tell how the assault took place. In fact, the car wasn't stolen; the ignition key was taken. But their 1975 Pacer was left blocking a driveway and had to be towed.

The second Seattle attack took place about 10 a.m. Thanksgiving Day when a woman visiting from Bridgeport, Okanogan County, said she was threatened by a man with a box-cutting knife who stole her 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier.

Car's window broken

The woman said she was lost, saw the man smiling at her and intended to ask for directions, but her car had a broken window, so she had to open the door. The man took the car near Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Yesler Way. It was recovered Thursday afternoon.

The next Seattle incident was reported about 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day on First Avenue when two Bellevue teen-agers arrived downtown in their 1985 Chevrolet Blazer and stopped the truck "to speak to some friends."

The driver and his friend got out, leaving the engine running. As the Bellevue teens were talking to their friends, five other teen-agers came up and a fight ensued, with the Bellevue teens and their friends running away.

With an empty Blazer idling away at the curb, the attackers got in and drove away, the Bellevue teens reported.

In another incident, a Kirkland minister, the Rev. Arvid Sather of the Happy Church, 11215 N.E. 132nd St., reported he was threatened by a man with a knife about 11 p.m. Wednesday at the church.

Van chased by patrol

Sather said he'd taken the keys out of the church's 1987 van but left it idling as he loaded it. After threatening Sather, the man leaped into the van and drove away. The van later was noticed by the State Patrol and chased over Snoqualmie Pass, where it was finally stopped after an accident.

The most blatant attack was reported about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Southcenter parking lot in Tukwila when a Beacon Hill woman, 31, said she was forced into her car, driven to the Skyway area and ordered out near South 116th Street and Renton Avenue South.

The robber took the car and $112 in cash. The victim wasn't injured and called police. The 1991 Acura, license 811 DDX, still hasn't been recovered.

Tukwila police say they know of at least one other nearby robbery in which a similar suspect was involved. They are looking into whether the crimes might be related. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Citizens can protect themselves

Police say there are a number of steps citizens can take to protect against carjackings or vehicle robberies:

-- Look around as you approach your car. Don't go to the car if anything seems unusual.

-- Keep doors and windows locked.

-- If approached by a stranger, stay in the locked car and roll your window down just an inch to talk.

-- Take out your car keys before approaching your car; they can serve as a weapon, and reduce fumbling and limit the possible moment of opportunity for an attacker to strike.

-- Keep at least a car length between your car and the one in front at stop lights to provide room to escape an attack.

-- If another car does hit you, stay in your car; true carjackings often begin by faking a traffic accident.

-- Carry a cellular telephone.

-- Park in well-lit areas.

-- Keep belongings out of sight.

-- Keep your car well-maintained, with windows that work.

-- Keep your car registration and other papers on your person, not in the car. That way, if the car is stolen, a thief won't also be able to readily tell where you live and perhaps burglarize your house, too.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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