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Carjacking tracked high tech { July 17 2003 }

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Carjacked but Tracked
High-Tech System Helps End Chase Of Stolen SUV Carrying 2 Toddlers

By Fredrick Kunkle and Michael Amon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 17, 2003; Page A01

Maraie Plaia lay crying on the side of River Road just seconds after a man dragged her from her vehicle, jumped in and sped away with her two children inside.

"The only thing she was worried about was her kids," recalled Jim Beckett, a passing motorist who pulled over to help.

When Beckett overheard her tell police she had been driving a 2002 Mercedes-Benz SUV, he knew how to help. He realized that the stolen car, like his own Mercedes, would have a piece of equipment that could help police track it: a satellite-based system that can pinpoint a vehicle's location down to the intersection.

Beckett pulled a police sergeant aside and told him authorities could reach the system using his own car. "It was providence that I was right behind her," said Beckett, 52, an Annapolis resident who manages a hardware store in Bethesda.

The global-positioning and communications device helped police track the carjacker during a wild high-speed chase Tuesday night and eavesdrop indirectly inside the vehicle, authorities said. Company officials monitoring the device told police they could hear the driver talking to himself. And they also heard the two children -- 3-year-old Paul and 19-month-old Edie -- well enough to know they were unharmed.

Police charged Carl E. Jones, 31, of Chesapeake Beach with carjacking, two counts of kidnapping and related crimes following the car chase that roamed as far as the Baltimore Beltway and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at speeds in excess of 100 mph, authorities said.

As many as four police helicopters participated in the pursuit -- including one that witnessed the carjacking -- until a roadblock and slowing traffic forced the driver to stop near the Prince George's County border. Jones was taken into custody after a brief foot chase, police said. The children, uninjured, were reunited with their parents at Suburban Hospital.

Plaia, 31, of Great Falls tried to snatch one of her two young children from the rear seat before the man drove off, court documents say. She loosened her son's seatbelt, but when the SUV started to pull away, she feared that the boy would fall out of the vehicle and instead slammed the door, authorities said.

Reached at her Virginia home yesterday, Plaia said she was not ready to talk about the incident.

"Today, we're a little frazzled," she said. "We just need to get our bearings. We're in a little shock."

Court documents and police yesterday provided this description of events:

The chase began well before the carjacking, with police following Jones by helicopter after a police officer spotted him in a stolen Infiniti in Baltimore. Jones then fled south on Interstate 95 at high speed until he ran out of gas and abandoned the Infiniti at Clewerall Drive just outside the Capital Beltway about 8:30 p.m.

Jones then tried to flag down traffic on River Road. One car slowed and moved on. As a Baltimore police helicopter hovered overheard, Jones then stood in the middle of the southbound lane of River Road, waving his arms and blocking Plaia's car.

When Plaia stopped and rolled down her window, Jones told her his daughter needed help. Then he reached inside, opened her door and ordered her out.

Plaia refused, saying her children were in the car, and Jones then grabbed her and yanked her out. "He pulls her out in the blink of an eye, and she's down on the ground," said Montgomery County police Capt. John Fitzgerald.

After Plaia's failed effort to free her son, Jones sped away and headed back onto the Capital Beltway at high speed.

Minutes after the carjacking, Beckett said he hit the SOS button in his Mercedes, and in a few seconds, the voice of a TeleAid representative boomed from a speaker hooked up to a cell phone installed in the car.

The TeleAid system consists of a microphone, a cell phone connection and a computer system linked to most aspects of the car. When activated, it transmits data to a center in Texas where employees can assist motorists in getting help after an accident or talk them through other problems, said Michelle Murad, a Mercedes spokeswoman.

After talking to the sergeant and Plaia, the TeleAid representative began tracking the woman's stolen car on a digital map as it careened through suburban Maryland.

TeleAid officials, using the cell phone connection and microphone in the car, also could listen to what was happening inside the vehicle. They could not broadcast the frequency to police, so they instead alerted authorities if anything significant was said, said Gary Wallace, a spokesman for ATX, the Dallas company that designed TeleAid.

Meanwhile, Jones headed north on I-95, jumped onto Interstate 695 ringing Baltimore, turned around somewhere near Interstate 70 and again headed south on I-95, Fitzgerald said.

As helicopters followed, Jones then exited onto the inner loop of the Capital Beltway and roared east on Route 50 until making another U-turn at the tolls for the Bay Bridge, police said. A police roadblock on Route 50 near Route 301 dramatically slowed the Mercedes, allowing Officer Thomas Tippett to cut off the SUV with his patrol car. Jones rammed the police car and bailed out but was captured after a short run.

A bond hearing in Montgomery County District Court yesterday was postponed because Jones's lawyer was not available. Court records show that Jones has a long record of criminal convictions for such charges as carjacking, robbery and kidnapping.

"It is obviously every parent's worst nightmare, what this victim went through," said Deborah Armstrong, Montgomery assistant state's attorney.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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