ELYRIA, Ohio — Carjackings in Northeast Ohio are on the rise, and the growing concerns of why are hard to miss around the community.
It was Jan. 27, 2022, when Teresa Merriweather was headed into work on what she described as a "normal" day.
"I migrate off and stopped on West Ridge [Road] at that gas station," Merriweather said, pointing to the spot in Elyria. "[I was] getting gas so I can refuel and head onto my destination, where I was supposed to be that day."
What was supposed to be a quick pit stop turned into a defining and terrifying memory for Merriweather that could later be pieced together using 911 calls and security camera footage.
"They just stole my truck, and it's a detective's truck," Merriweather said to a 911 dispatcher, later telling us she "would be lying to say I wasn't nervous." "They... he pulled a gun on me. ... They said they needed my truck and I just let them have it. I'm scared that they would try to shoot me."
Gas station security camera footage shows Merriweather at a gas pump. Shortly after beginning to pump, two suspects are seen walking in the parking lot.
"I spotted them when they were coming out of the store," Merriweather described. "Before I knew it, they were up on me really fast. He had his gun present and he said, 'You know what [expletive] time it is.'"
Three suspects were arrested and charged, according to Elyria Police. One of them was just 18 years old.
Merriweather is just one person who has fallen victim to a sweeping rise in car jackings plaguing Northeast Ohio, and sometimes things can get even more serious. Last October, carjackers kidnapped a 38-year-old woman at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, with police saying the victim was threatened with a gun when trying to escape before ultimately biting one of the victims and being pushed out of the moving SUV.
In the Little Italy, on Dec. 27, a 22-year-old woman was carjacked and shot in the leg. A 14-year-old boy was arrested for the crime.
Just four days later, on Cleveland's west side, off-duty Cleveland police officer Shane Bartek was killed in a carjacking. Prosecutors have charged 18-year-old Tamara McLoyd with aggravated murder.
"The number of car jackings that [have] happened with a weapon and by force has gone up," Daniel Flanner, director of violence prevention at Case Western Reserve University's Begun Center, said.
Records kept by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office prove so, showing a 50% spike in just two years:
- 2019: 285 car jackings.
- 2020: 355 car jackings.
- 2021: 433 car jackings.
"The age of the offenders certainly seems to have gone down," Flannery added. "Kids just haven't been spending much time in school."
The rise is causing some, such as Flannery, to re-evaluate the state's approach to dealing with teenaged offenders, scrutinizing a state juvenile system that focuses on counseling and rehabilitation.
"That's a juvenile justice system issue right now," Flannery said. "You have to take a preventative approach in a longer-term view."
Merriweather is holding onto hope the three suspects in her case can't do this again. For now, she's focusing on triggers that remind her of that day.
"I actually passed by [the gas station] last night, and one of my relatives that was in the car with me, she said, 'Teresa, are you ok?'" she recalled. "I said, 'I'm fine.' She said, 'Do you have an eerie feeling?' I said, 'I do.'"
Experts say the impacts of the pandemic can be an attributing factor in the rise of these violent crimes, and that being out of school or having so much free time is creating a culture of committing these acts out for a sense of adventure or peer pressure.