A 72-year-old woman stopped when she heard a teenager yell to her from a distance. Alarmed, she tried to shoo him away, but the teen and a friend rushed toward her, she said, grabbed her purse and beat her to the ground.
The boys fled down the alley, then abruptly turned back to steal her car, too.
The brazen attack on a Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis fit a familiar pattern among a spate of violent carjackings throughout the Twin Cities this year, a troubling surge that law enforcement largely attributes to small groups of marauding teens. In many cases, juveniles use the stolen vehicles to commit other strong-arm robberies.
"It's open season out there," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because at least one suspect remains at large. "We're not safe in this city."
Police say suspects tend to approach victims on the street, sidewalk or parking lot — often while they're distracted with routine tasks. A significant number of armed stickups have targeted seniors and unaccompanied women at their vehicles on Minneapolis' South Side.
"You should be able to unload groceries out of your car without fear," said Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder, noting that the department responded to the increase in carjackings by adding investigators to the team handling auto thefts.
Over the past five weeks, police have logged more than 63 carjackings in the city. MPD didn't specifically track this type of crime until Sept. 22 because they were so infrequent. Previous cases fell under the larger umbrella of aggravated robberies and auto theft. The agency created a new coding system after the summer months yielded an unusually high number of attacks.
"These suspects have been known to ask for directions, then rob the victim of a purse, phone or car," read an MPD crime alert issued last week in the Third Precinct. It advised residents to be aware of their surroundings and carry only essentials.
Another recent alert, in the neighboring Fifth Precinct, noted that the encounters involve suspects wearing masks and happen so quickly that it's often challenging for witnesses to describe the assailants.
In a persistent wave of robberies since mid-July, a taxi driver was shot and killed after confronting two men breaking into his cab. A father of two was dragged a short distance when he tried to stop a man from stealing his vehicle with his wife and child inside. Juvenile suspects incapacitated motorists with chemical irritants in back-to-back Labor Day carjackings. Thieves stole the running car of a Domino's driver — along with two handguns stashed inside — as he approached a St. Paul residence to deliver pizza Tuesday night. And Wednesday, teenagers followed a St. Paul woman into her open garage and ripped her from the driver's seat by her hair as she talked on the phone with her mother.
The spree comes amid a nearly unprecedented spike in violent crime, particularly shootings, since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody and the civil unrest that followed.
Fed up, citizens are flooding social media to warn their neighbors, encouraging one another to arm themselves or, at the very least, to buy security cameras and small GPS trackers for their keys.
Some lamented that their pleas for help have been largely drowned out by news of the day, including calls for police reform and the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Steve Taylor, facilitator of the popular Uptown Crime Facebook page, is working to develop a registry of local victims, many who say they feel abandoned by elected leaders and fear an officer shortage has emboldened criminals.
"[The City] Council wants to blame the police. Police want to blame the council," Taylor said. "No one wants to take responsibility."
Meanwhile, victims are left to deal with the trauma of the assaults on their own. By the time the 72-year-old woman sought medical treatment for her injuries last month, the robbers had racked up more than $1,000 in charges on her credit cards.
Twelve hours later, three teenage boys riding in her car struck a tree while trying to elude police through the North Side. They all died at the scene.
"It's sad that this is what kids are resorting to," she told the Star Tribune. "Somewhere along the line, someone failed them."
As a Minneapolis man approached his Uptown apartment late one Saturday night in August, three teenagers swarmed him outside the door. They pressed a handgun into the back of his head and showered him in Mace, stripping his wallet and car keys before speeding off in his Mercedes.
They led police on an early morning chase from St. Paul to north Minneapolis, where they were later arrested. The attackers were just 12 and 13 years old.
One of the boys' mothers apologized for his behavior and told KARE 11 that she's struggled to find resources for her son, who's had repeated run-ins with law enforcement.
"I raised my son good," she said, "but when he gets around other kids that have dysfunctional households … my son wants to kick it with the misfits."
Authorities attribute some of the behavior to increased poverty brought on by the coronavirus and a lack of stability at home. Without in-person schooling and organized sports — which provide regular meals and exposure to positive role models — teens are more likely to succumb to the allure of street life, police say.
Ramsey County Undersheriff Mike Martin criticized juvenile detention alternatives that are reluctant to keep teens jailed overnight, noting that investigators occasionally chase the same suspects multiple times in the same night.
"There's no disincentive," Martin said. "They would be out before [officers] got done writing the reports."
'Women do not feel safe'
Susie Passons had just thrown the car in park, made an appointment on her phone and stepped out of the vehicle in the Linden Hills neighborhood, when four teenagers surrounded her.
The group shoved Passons to the ground, then pilfered her cellphone, bag and car — all in under a minute, before a bystander chased them off.
Ten minutes later, officers spotted her stolen black Audi less than 2 miles away, at a reported robbery outside a nail salon. The car has yet to be recovered.
Since the Oct. 23 attack, Passons has struggled to sleep and suffered flashbacks. For the first time in her life, she contemplated buying a gun.
"Today, women do not feel safe in Minneapolis," she said. "Our once thriving city has become an utterly frightening place to live."