Four men jumped in the car and drove away, after a man left a vehicle running while he checked the air in its tires. A family of three was left stranded at a car wash, after an employee kept the car running as he scrubbed its sides. A thief sped off in their van. Another man threatened a woman with a gun as she walked to her parked car, demanding her keys and later stealing her vehicle.
Forest Park police have recorded 54 auto thefts so far in 2017, on pace to make this year the hottest for vehicle robberies since at least 2013. The number of carjackings—cars taken through threat or use of physical force—is four, also more than any year in recent history. The above are just a few examples of recent incidents, according to police reports.
"Every day I come in there's a car theft," said police chief Thomas Aftanas, who said it seems like most of Forest Park's carjackings and thefts have occurred in the past month.
Increased incidents of car thefts and jackings started in Chicago and bled locally, said Tim Gillian, village administrator. Forest Park's proximity to the expressway makes it an easy target for thieves, he said. Most incidents occur on or near Harlem Avenue, at Thorntons at 601 Harlem Ave.; Refiner's Pride at 7323 Randolph St.; Harlem Randolph Car Wash at 161 Harlem Ave.; and Premier Car Wash at 901 Harlem Ave. This is not a reason to avoid the area, Gillian said; just be wary.
"In 30 seconds they are on the Eisenhower headed east or westbound," he said. "It's tough to chase them once they're on the highway."
Police only chase offenders in incidents that involve carjackings. Thefts are too risky. Aftanas said most thieves don't stop when they see officers flashing lights, and many are young, age 14, 15 or 16.
"They don't have a valid driver's license and they can't drive," Aftanas said. "And so if they're doing 90-plus, someone's going to get killed."
Last week, Forest Park, Oak Park, Chicago and River Forest police arrested at least five people allegedly connected to local car thefts or jackings. Most of those arrested have Chicago addresses, Aftanas said.
They typically don't talk about their reason for stealing cars. But officials have heard rumors: It's a gang initiation; offenders are thrill-seeking; they need the cars to go somewhere else, or commit another crime; or, they just steal them because it's easy.
Whatever the reason, "we're all concerned because they have real guns on them," Aftanas said. "Whether they intend to or not, you can accidentally shoot someone. The more times you commit a crime, the more chance an accidental shooting's going to happen. They pick the wrong victim who's going to arm themselves, and that could lead to a gun fight."