The FBI tracks down African carjacking rings that prey on suburbanites with luxury SUVs and quickly ship the vehicles abroad.
The crimes reached a harrowing climax last week when three men from Sierra Leone allegedly carjacked two women hours apart - one of whom grabbed their gun long enough to free her 7-year-old daughter from the back seat.
The gun went off during the scuffle, striking one suspect in the thumb.
"The thieves want the car intact. ... They get paid to deliver that vehicle with its keys," said Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green, whose office is prosecuting one of the two attacks Wednesday. "So the anti-theft devices in these vehicles are compromised because essentially they attack the driver."
A shootout with police ensued that night when the suspects drove the second stolen vehicle into a stakeout, officials said. Green's office has filed a long list of charges, including robbery and aggravated assault, against Unisa Kamara, 19, Jakuba Kamara, 29, and Omaru Sannoh, 20, the injured suspect.
While the trio await court hearings, police are trying to determine whether they have ties to a handful of other African carjacking "cells" they have pursued in the past year.
At least five other African men have been charged in federal court in Philadelphia. One of them - Liberian refugee Musa Donzo - is set to be sentenced Tuesday.
The thieves have very specific vehicles in mind - with Range Rovers, Cadillac Escalades, BMWs and other pricey sport-utility vehicles topping the list. They might even have a specific order for a make and model, according to interviews with police, prosecutors and FBI officials.
Typically, the rings pay $500 (341 EUR) to $1,500 (1,023 EUR) to a young immigrant assigned to steal a car, investigators said. Other people in the ring forge titles, handle the shipping and get the vehicle from the port in Africa or Europe to the intended buyer, perhaps through several intermediaries, they said.
While stolen American cars for years have ended up abroad, officials find particularly troubling the shift toward carjacking, which came about because the new luxury cars are nearly impossible to steal without a key.
"Their propensity to violence is scary, because they're young males and they are obviously armed with firearms," said Philadelphia Police Lt. Frank Vanore.
Donzo, who came to the U.S. in 2003, did well enough at a Philadelphia public high school to win admission to college. But instead of enrolling in the fall of 2006, he was arrested for trying to carjack a nurse at gunpoint outside her home that September.
He was convicted during a summer trial in which a co-defendant testified against him, said federal prosecutors who are seeking a sentence of more than 11 years in prison. He could also be deported after completing his prison term.
Donzo's defense lawyer, Andrew F. Erba, did not return a telephone message Monday.
It was not immediately clear if Sannoh and the Kamaras had lawyers.