The Myth of the Car Jacked Baby

In the Midwest, police are searching for a two-year-old whose father says went missing when a thief carjacked him and drove away with the toddler still strapped into a seat. The car was found nearby, with an empty car seat inside.

Such cases create fear in the minds of parents. They want to know how to keep their kids safe from would-be car thieves.

But it causes me to think of something else: staging. Staging is the manipulation of a crime to make it look like something it is not. A perpetrator has “staged” a crime scene when he or she has changed the forensic and behavioral evidence in order to make a child abduction or murder look like a random car jacking. The offender wants to point investigators away from him or her.

One of the most infamous examples of this type of staging is Susan Smith, a mother who created an elaborate story about a black man who carjacked her car and drove off with her two young boys in the backseat. We now all know that she fabricated this story to cover up what really happened. Susan had driven her car to a lake with her two sons trapped inside. Her sons drowned.

She was ultimately arrested and charged with the crime.

Another example is a case I helped to investigate in the late 1990s. The bodies of a mother and three year old toddler were found brutally murdered inside a minivan in southern California. Initially, it looked like a car jacking gone awry. The husband and natural father of the baby was eventually charged and convicted. He is currently on death row for his crimes. At the time of her death, the toddler was old enough to have some verbal skills. We always thought the wife was the target, but when the toddler saw her daddy killing her mother, dad knew she would be able to tell the police who the real killer was. So, the toddler had to go.

If you are a parent who worries that someone might carjack your kids along with your car, here are three things that might ease your mind.

  1. Children are much more likely to be harmed by someone close to them than by a stranger—even a carjacker. This is precisely why investigators rule out family members and other people who knew the missing children. Stranger abductions do happen, but they are incredibly rare.
  2. Car thieves want cars, not children. In genuine carjacking cases, the thief is interested in the car. Once he gets it, he drives away as fast as he can. When he learns that a baby or small infant is sleeping in the back of the car, the jacker abandons the car with the child safely inside. For instance, earlier this year, a Chicago woman was carjacked while her baby was still inside. The car and baby were found two hours later, unharmed. Similarly in Washington DC over Thanksgiving weekend, a carjacker stole an SUV with a 13 month old still inside. The thief abandoned the SUV just a few blocks away.
  3. Car thieves don’t morph into murderers overnight. Just because someone is capable of one type of crime doesn’t mean the person is capable of another. Carjacking is a crime that results in probation or light jail time. Child kidnapping or murder is one that carries a sentence of life in prison or even death. Police are also a lot more likely to pour all of their resources into catching a child kidnapper—resources that they won’t necessarily use to find a car thief. It’s for these reasons that car thieves abandon cars when they realize children are still inside.

When a staged car jacking is reported there are distinct behavioral characteristics and patterns that set them apart from real car jackings. For one, the crime scene is often too orderly and too clean. Strangers don’t tend to engage in staging. There is no reason to. They don’t know the victim and would not be a likely suspect. As a result they don’t stick around to manipulate the crime scene. A stranger gets away as fast as possible—putting time and distance between himself and the scene. In the California case I’d mentioned earlier, we suspected the father’s involvement based on several details: the minivan was legally parked in a residential neighborhood and it was locked. A stranger would not have taken the time to lock the van or to park it legally in a residential neighborhood where it would be found very quickly. A stranger would have ditched the van and run, would not care about securing it, and would probably pick a location where it was not so easy to locate.

 Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, is the author of Dangerous Instincts, which exposes myths like the carjacked baby and many others. You can find it wherever books are sold.

“The views and opinions expressed by Dr Mary Ellen O’Toole are hers and not necessarily the views of the FBI”.