“Take the car,” she pleaded. “Just let me get my kids.”
Chaos on a Summer Day
Marna Plaia strapped her children into their car seats in the back of her Mercedes SUV. On this lovely summer day, the petite 31-year-old mother had taken a golf break while Edie, 18 months, and Paul, 3 years old, enjoyed a day of pampering by their grandparents in Potomac, Maryland. But now it was close to the children’s bedtime and they were headed home. Edie had been fussing with a tummy ache and was probably teething too.
As she turned left onto River Road, headed for the Capital Beltway, Marna heard the loud chop of a helicopter. A police aircraft hovered ahead, barely clearing the tops of the tall trees.
The stolen late-model green Infiniti had sped along the Capital Beltway at more than 100 mph. It snaked in and out of traffic, and dashed onto the shoulders when cars blocked the lanes. But Baltimore police officer and aerial observer Bill Shiflett kept the car in constant sight from his vantage point in the helicopter.
Shiflett, a 10-year police veteran, and his partner, the chopper pilot, had been tracking the car in their aircraft, Foxtrot 3, for more than a half-hour now. The suspected car thief had escaped a roadblock in the center of the city, and had left the patrol cars in the dust. But he couldn’t shake the aerial pursuit.
Now, the Infiniti left the beltway at River Road and headed into a suburban area in Virginia. As the car slowed down, Shiflett tried to alert the state police on the ground, but he couldn’t get a signal on the police radio. Then he saw the driver jump from the still-moving Infiniti. Without anyone behind the wheel, the car coasted to the shoulder and stopped, while the suspect ran into the southbound lane of River Road, waving to stop oncoming traffic.
“Get Out of the Car!”
“He’s trying to carjack somebody,” Shiflett told his partner. He asked the pilot to take the helicopter down to about 150 feet, just above the treetops. Like a giant wasp ready to sting, Foxtrot 3 buzzed above the scene. If they could scare the guy off into the woods, they could prevent him from harming anyone.
A car dodged around to the right of the suspect and kept on going.
Shiflett did a quick reconnaissance of the area. Telephone and power poles threaded with wires marched along either side and crisscrossed River Road. If they attempted a landing, the copter would tangle and crash.
Circling just above the trees in a tight orbit, the cop watched in frustration as the suspect waved down a black SUV. The SUV slowed. Shiflett grabbed the mike of the copter’s public address system, and bellowed out a warning: “Don’t stop. Keep moving!”
A neatly dressed young black man wearing glasses ran across the road in front of Marna’s car and headed toward the woods on her right. Then he turned and darted back into her lane. She tried to swerve around him, but he waved his arms and blocked her way. He seemed frantic. “Stop, stop,” he yelled, pointing at the woods while running around to her door. “My daughter needs help!”
Concerned, the young mom rolled down her window. And his demeanor changed instantly. He reached inside and grabbed the door handle. “Get out of the car,” he ordered.
“No! My kids,” Marna cried, trying to fight him off, but he yanked her out of the SUV and threw her to the pavement in the opposite lane.
On her feet and at the back door almost as soon as she hit the ground, she pleaded with her attacker, “Take the car. Just let me get my kids.”
He ignored her cries and adjusted the controls. Near panic, Marna unbuckled the seat belt that held Paul snugly in his car seat. She pulled him toward her, but her little boy’s arm caught in the shoulder harness.
Oh, my God, she realized. The car was still moving. Her son would be dragged along the road if she couldn’t free him.
Out of time, she did probably the most difficult thing imaginable: She pushed her child back in the car and slammed the door.
“Mom?” Paul cried out to her. Edie whimpered. Marna’s heart twisted. She ran behind her SUV as the carjacker sped away.
Roadblocks and Stop Sticks
Then she turned into oncoming traffic, flailing her arms at passing cars. “A man pulled me out of my car,” she cried. “My children are in the car. Help me. Help me get my kids!”
Shiflett watched the thief wrench the woman from the front seat and throw her to the asphalt. She jumped up like a prizefighter and ran to her SUV’s back door. His cop’s instinct kicked in: There was only one reason a woman would take that kind of risk. “There are kids in that car,” he said to his partner, a lump forming in his throat. Now the carjacker turned toward Baltimore, headed back the way he had come. The pilot pushed the aircraft’s speed to the maximum of about 140 mph. Even so, the Mercedes SUV nearly pulled ahead of the copter.
As the sky darkened, the lead detective at the crime scene inspected the spot on River Road where the carjacking had taken place, then moved police operations to a nearby fire station. He remembered another carjacking that had happened in a neighboring county several years back. A child had been in that car too; it had ended tragically.
The detective stepped out of Marna Plaia’s hearing range to monitor radio transmissions from the ground pursuit. They had to get these babies back safely. After 30 years on the job, it would be more than he could handle if anything happened to them.
The distraught young mother, joined by her husband and family members, waited in stunned silence amid all the buzzing activity at the firehouse.
Then the police got a break: The SUV was equipped with TeleAid, a satellite tracking system that could not only pinpoint the SUV’s position, but allowed the TeleAid dispatcher to hear everything happening inside the vehicle. The dispatcher, who was listening in, reported that the carjacker had asked the children if their mommy had a cell phone. If the carjacker was talking to Paul and Edie, that probably meant they were still okay. The one thing TeleAid couldn’t do was patch police in to talk to the driver directly.
Police departments throughout the area began setting up roadblocks wherever it seemed likely that the carjacker might try to flee.
State police trooper David Marshall got the call at the barracks in Annapolis: Respond to the South River crossover at Route 50 eastbound near the Prince George’s County line and stand by for further details.
He met his supervisor at the designated place, and was told that marked squad cars would set up a roadblock across two of the three lanes. Marshall’s car was unmarked. If the carjacker ran the roadblock, Marshall was to disable the car with a stop stick.
Stop sticks are flexible pipes with hollow spikes inside that attach to and pierce the tires of any car that runs over them. Once pierced, tires lose air through the spikes and slowly go flat. The stick is attached to a line that lets the officer cast it almost as he would a fishing rod. If all went as planned, the device would disable the vehicle with no one getting injured.
Trooper Marshall waited in the center lane, about 100 feet from the roadblock. Radio transmissions warned that the suspect vehicle was coming in fast. Positioned in the middle of the three-lane road, Marshall saw the SUV run the roadblock and roar down the fast lane — and he cast the stop stick directly in its path.
The SUV swerved onto the left shoulder to avoid the spikes. Next it swerved again back into the left lane. Then it swerved to the right, this time aiming right at Marshall. The trooper dove for his life, as the big black vehicle zoomed past. Then, yanking the stop stick off the road so pursuing squad cars wouldn’t run over it, he got behind the wheel and joined the chase.
For almost two hours now, the Baltimore police helicopter, Foxtrot 3, had chased the carjacker, first in the Infiniti and then the Mercedes, back and forth across five counties. With the sky now completely dark, aerial observer Bill Shiflett tracked the car through a thermal imaging system that would allow him to find the suspect by body heat if he bailed out of the SUV as he had the first car.
State Police Trooper 8, another law enforcement helicopter, had joined the pursuit, and TeleAid kept tracking the vehicle by GPS. Dozens of squad cars, lights whirling and sirens wailing, drafted closely behind the Mercedes.
Still, the carjacker raced on: bouncing over medians, darting along shoulders, cutting across grassy sections from highway to highway — with each move imperiling the lives of the two toddlers he held captive in the back.
Undercover officer Thomas Tippett waited on the median of south-bound I-95 as the black Mercedes SUV drove past. He pulled his Jeep in behind several cruisers as the suspect dashed off the Interstate, onto the beltway, then onto Route 50, headed toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Just before the bridge, he drove over the crossover and headed west.
Trooper Doug Baralo got the call that the pursuit was about a mile from him on Route 50. So, he turned his police cruiser around at an exit ramp and soon wove his vehicle in among the other squad cars.
Moments later, traffic slowed. Other cops had set up a roadblock ahead.
With the Mercedes forced to decrease its speed, Tippett saw an opportunity to finally stop this guy. He drove his unmarked Jeep onto the grass of the median between the guardrail and the shoulder, then pulled into the lane in front of the carjacked vehicle.
Baralo raced his police cruiser up the empty right shoulder.
Suddenly, Tippett swerved his Jeep sideways, blocking the SUV’s path. The carjacker slammed into the Jeep, pushing it several feet down the asphalt. But Tippett and the other cops had him trapped.
“Hold Your Fire”
Guns drawn, police jumped from their cars and converged on the Mercedes. “Get your hands up,” yelled Tippett as he approached the carjacker.
Baralo ran toward the scene. The kids! He had to get them to safety.
“Hold your fire,” yelled Baralo.
His fellow officers waited as he opened the SUV’s back door — a small boy was standing there. He reached up his arms to the officer. Baralo picked him up, placed him in the arms of another officer, then reached in to unbuckle the little girl. She clung to Baralo as he radioed for a helicopter to take the toddlers to the hospital. As the children were being rescued, the officers shattered the driver’s side window, pulled the carjacker out, and placed him under arrest.
Back at the fire station on River Road, the police reported the good news to Marna and her family. The children were safe. Marna embraced her husband, and wept in relief. Police escorted the Plaias to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, where Paul and Edie had been airlifted by helicopter. Three-year-old Paul had a cut and bruise on his face, but otherwise, he and his sister were unharmed.
Trooper Baralo still held 18-month-old Edie in his arms. She had clung to him from the moment he rescued her, refusing to let the doctors take her away. Only when Marna reached for Edie, the child she had almost lost forever, did the little girl finally let go.