In recent months, Tonia Bowman-Middlebrook has clocked into her eight-hour shift at the Minneapolis impound lot and taken on additional responsibility: notifying people that their carjacked vehicle is available for pickup.
"It's unbelievable how many of these stolen cars we take," said Bowman-Middlebrook, who's worked at the lot for nearly six years. "In my shift, I might do 15 by myself."
Amid a surge in carjackings across the Twin Cities, Minneapolis has been towing recovered vehicles to the lot west of downtown once police finish processing them for evidence.
During calls, the car owners sound happy to hear they can get their cars back, Bowman-Middlebrook said, but once they arrive at the service window, the trauma they've experienced is hard to miss. Between the sometimes-visible bruises and stories victims share, "you can tell this ain't something they're making up," she said. "It is real. It is scary."
A visit to the impound lot is just one of many lingering costs carjacking victims face. Last year, such crimes surged in Minneapolis, with more than 640 attempted or successful carjackings in 2021. The crimes were brazen and violent, and among those victimized, the physical and emotional toll is long-lasting. And the financial fallout adds insult to injury, they say.
Trauma, then towing fees
Kirsten DeHaven, who uses they/them pronouns, was carjacked in early January and left beaten in the snow with a lower orbital fracture to their left eye.
They had been sitting in their car, letting it run to warm, when an SUV pulled up beside them on a one-way street in Uptown Minneapolis. Two boys emerged — ages 15 or 16, DeHaven estimated.
Suddenly, one of the boys opened the front passenger's side door and told DeHaven they were taking DeHaven's car, a high-end model.
DeHaven recalled a threat: "If you don't get out of it, we will kill you. I have a gun." Not knowing what to do, DeHaven froze. That's when the second teenager opened the driver's-side door.
The boys pulled DeHaven out of the car, and someone hit DeHaven in the eye with something cold and hard. DeHaven thought it might have been a gun.
DeHaven thought they were going to die. But after the suspects hopped into DeHaven's car, the chokehold was released, and everyone was gone. The people had taken the car and DeHaven's phone.
Police told DeHaven that within minutes of their own assault, 911 calls were coming in from people describing DeHaven's car in association with other carjackings and robberies nearby. Though police located the unoccupied vehicle and DeHaven's phone that night, investigators held both for processing.
In the weeks that followed, DeHaven, a doctor of chiropractic candidate, canceled their tutoring appointments and teaching assistant shifts. They couldn't work. They put all their classes on hold.
It would be at least a month, maybe two, before DeHaven got their car back, an officer told them. Luckily, after several calls to Minneapolis police, the date came sooner.
What police did not tell DeHaven was that DeHaven would have to pay to get the car. In late January, the impound lot charged them about $145, a towing fee, in order to release it.
"We were kind of like, 'What? We didn't break any laws,'" DeHaven said. "'The law was basically broken on me. Why do I have to pay for something that shouldn't have happened?'"
When DeHaven expressed concerns with the fee, their representative referred them to Cornerstone, a Bloomington-based nonprofit that supports victims of violence, which has reimbursed them. If an auto shop estimates the mechanical damage to the car to be above DeHaven's $500 car insurance deductible, DeHaven hopes Cornerstone can cover the deductible, too.
No one offered Marie and Worth an option such as Cornerstone when they retrieved their car from the lot last spring. The couple asked to be identified by their middle names out of concern for their safety.
They paid the full tow fee — after more than a month without their car — and then paid about $4,000 to cover the cost of repairs. They had car insurance, but it didn't include collateral protection.
Marie was 34 weeks pregnant at the time, and the couple had just parked their car on a street in northeast Minneapolis and begun walking to a friend's house for an Easter brunch. Another car pulled up ahead of theirs, but they assumed the occupants lived on the street.
Realizing that Worth forgot his mask, the two headed back to the car. That's when a teenager from the other vehicle approached them at gunpoint. He drove off in their car, a basic model.
Using video captured from a 360 camera on a nearby car, authorities arrested and prosecuted a 14-year-old boy for their carjacking. They found the car abandoned in Columbia Heights. Had it not been for the recording, the couple aren't sure their case would've been solved.
Beyond violent thefts, crashes
One 24-year-old Twin Cities resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity has stopped pursuing updates relevant to the investigation of his own experience with the carjacking surge. He was not accosted for his vehicle, but T-boned by carjackers on a residential street near Minnehaha Regional Park shortly after New Year's Day.
It was 11 a.m., and there was fresh snow on the ground. He was at a stop sign when, from the corner of his right eye, he noticed a Ford pickup truck approaching full speed, "flying."
Within seconds, everything went white. His airbags deployed. The pickup driver had struck his car's passenger's side. He stumbled out, and headed toward the truck to collect the driver's insurance information.
But three boys jumped out of the car and ran.
"I thought they were like scared," he said. "I didn't know what was going on."
Police told him the pickup truck had recently been carjacked. His case was classified as a hit-and-run.
Since the accident, he's avoided being in cars as much as possible. His car insurance will cover the cost of repairs, but in the meantime, he works from home and gets groceries delivered. He finds it hard to talk about the incident because it is triggering.
Still, he worries about what future lies ahead for the kids who hit him.
"Overall, I have no anger towards them, really," he said. "I really hope those kids are able to, in the future or near future, not lead a type of life that will put you in the criminal system even though you're probably not that bad of a kid; you just did something so stupid."
The uptick in carjacking in the Twin Cities and some suburban communities has led authorities to dedicate additional resources to prosecuting the crimes. In December, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman pledged to prosecute such cases to the "full extent of the law."
The Twin Cities have even seen carjacking cases make their way to federal court. Last month, a 25-year-old woman was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for her part in a string of them. Because it is rare for juvenile cases to end up in federal court, it is unlikely that such prosecution will become the norm.
In 2021, more than half of the 149 carjacking cases referred to the Hennepin County Attorney's office involved juvenile offenders. So far, the same trend holds true for 2022.
When Marie and Worth had the opportunity to speak in the case against the 14-year-old who carjacked them, they didn't seek for him to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Instead, they considered the opposite. Prosecutors wanted to assign him extended juvenile jurisdiction, the couple said, meaning that up until age 21, the court could send the teenager to adult prison if he violated certain conditions.
"We actually argued against that," Worth said, "just because we felt that that's a long time away. … We weren't exactly sure that that was the best rehabilitation, having this thing hanging over his head for the next, like, eight years."
Kirsten DeHaven has processed similar thoughts while considering what accountability might look like in their own case. To their knowledge, no one has been arrested for their assault.
For now, they think of accountability in a broader sense.
"There needs to be more restorative justice that is woven into the system, more talks of accountability and processes of actually understanding the impact that these crimes have on community," they said.