Stollies: Inside Milwaukee's Stolen Car Epidemic

Of the many stories that lead Milwaukee newscasts every night, stolen car chases and crashes are far too familiar. And one common denominator is often the age of the drivers and passengers involved. As it turns out, there’s a term for stealing cars and joyriding that many people over the age of 21 may not have even heard of -- stollies. And that thrill of the chase is wreaking havoc on Wisconsin’s streets and putting lives in danger.

Milwaukee rapper Genesis Renji created the song "High Speed" as a look inside the mind of a young person inclined to steal a car. It also serves as a cautionary tale of the often deadly consequences.

STOLLIE: A stolen car.

Me and the homies were cruisin' in a stollie the other night, where were you at dawg?? — Urban Dictionary

Not long after the first wheels rolled off of Henry Ford’s assembly line, cars and crime became unwitting cohorts in the American cultural lexicon. You can trace a direct path from the real-life exploits of Bonnie and Clyde to the fictional adventures of Thelma and Louise and Grand Theft Auto.

So let’s not be fooled, stollies — whether it’s hotwiring an unattended parked car or using force to obtain it from the owner — isn’t a new phenomenon. What is alarming, is the age of the perpetrators, and in many cases, the violence involved.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Milwaukee Police Department reported 464 carjackings in 2016, 168 involving juvenile suspects. That same year, nearly 600 juveniles were arrested for operating an auto without the owner's consent, around 100 less than adults busted for the same crime. 

The City of Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission data shows an alarming decrease in the age of pursuit subjects over the past 15 years. The median age of a driver pursued by Milwaukee Police peaked at 40 in 2003. Since then, it’s steadily decreased to a median age of 18 in 2016.

Courtesy City of Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission

So what's to make of this troubling trend?

Mark Mertens, an administrator with the Delinquency and Court Services Division of the Milwaukee County Health and Human Services Department, has certainly heard of the term "stollies," and sees the effects of the culture among the youths that get sent their way.  

“They’re looking for status from their peers, looking for excitement, and so it seems to be a sort of a perfect storm for those youth,” Mertens said. “It’s a high risk, high-intensity situation, so it reinforces the type of thrill seeking that is also a part of adolescence.”

"They’re looking for status from their peers, looking for excitement."

The past few years in Milwaukee County have been particularly jolting. The total number of juveniles referred to the juvenile detention center for charges related to car thefts and armed robberies increased by nearly 20 percent from 2014 to 2016.

"Over the last few years, our referrals have gone up for youth that have been involved in operating a motor vehicle without owner’s consent or being a passenger in a stolen vehicle," said Mertens, who also added that they haven't noted a drastic decrease in the age of the perpetrators charged with car-related offenses.

"We can anticipate that if a youth is a passenger in a stolen car that one day they might actually be stealing cars themselves, so what can we do proactively to try to address the situation before it escalates to that point for those youth?" Mertens said.

THE PERPETRATORS

YOUNG OFFENDER

Breione Walker says he was 14 when he stole his first car. He estimates he stole up to nine cars before serving an 18-month jail sentence when he was almost 16.  

He says he got the idea after seeing kids in his neighborhood and that he went to school with, stealing cars.

"I actually thought it was fun to do with them. Sometimes I was with them and sometimes I was by myself," Walker said. 

Breione Walker and his mother talk about turning his life around after stealing cars.

Now that he's 18 and served some time, he's speaking out, urging other teens not to follow his path.  

"A lot of youth don't have, like they claim they don't have fathers in their life to teach them how to do the right thing, but I feel like that's not an excuse. They're doing it because they see other kids out here doing it," Walker said. 

His mother, Tanya Turner, says she didn't know he was stealing cars until he started to get bold, riding the cars up and down the street. She has a message for parents. 

"Sometimes you've got to be patient. Sometimes you've got to talk to your kids, like really, really talk to them," Turner said. "A lot of parents say, 'I'm giving up on you, just go do what you're wanna do,' but no, don't give up on them, even if they're doing something they're not supposed to do, never give up on your kids." 

SECOND CHANCES

By the time a juvenile gets locked up for a stolen car offense, it's usually the culmination of many other crimes that led them to that point. 

We spoke with a young man we'll call "Jay," who spent six months in the Milwaukee County Accountability Program, an alternative program for troubled youths who are being considered for the Department of Corrections juvenile division. 

Jay has been in and out of trouble since 2012, and was riding in a friend's stolen car when he was arrested. 

"Everybody here dying these days over stolen cars. It's not worth it."

"I was scared, but at the same time as I did get caught, I was like, 'this is finally over,'" Jay said. "I had been on the run for so long, I was tired of watching my back. Tired of running from the police."

Jay said he was resistant to the program at first, but claims it eventually "woke me up."

"The biggest thing out here, stolen cars, it is not worth it. Everybody out here dying these days over stolen cars. It's not worth it," he said. 

Jay's mother saw a difference in him after he got out of the program. She readily admits that her worst fear was her son "dying in one of those cars."

"Every time I heard a siren or something I always thought about, 'Is that my son? I didn't want that call saying my son was in one of those cars," she said. 

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Annie Robinson is special-ed teacher at North Division high school. She deals with teens all day, so she's certainly heard about the stollies trend.

But she has an even greater awareness because she was a victim -- twice.

Her minivan was stolen from the school parking lot on two occasions, and judging by the surveillance video, the perpetrators were teens.

High school teacher Annie Robinson talks about getting her minivan stolen from her school parking lot.

I came out to the parking and looked at this spot and realized, wait a minute, where did I park? Wait a minute, my car is gone," Robinson said.

Robinson says she tries to talk to kids to "get in their heads and see what's going on." Even though many of the perpetrators are poor kids who are trying to get ahold of something they see as unobtainable, she also sees kids involved that are well off. 

"Some kids, they actually take it to be a thrill to steal cars like that and then to talk about it later on, because it's like a culture with these kids now. I don't know, it's just heartbreaking that you have kids that would do stuff like that," Robinson said. "What can we do as a city, as parents, as school teachers and try to discourage this?"

That Robinson's vehicle has been targeted multiple times is probably not just an unhappy coincidence. Milwaukee Police Department data shows that Dodge Caravans are the vehicles most likely to be stolen in the city. 

Most Popular Stolen Cars in Milwaukee
Data courtesy of Milwaukee Police Department

The Designated Driver

Gideon Verdin-Williams was doing the right thing in May 2016. He and some friends were hanging out downtown, and he was responsible for getting everyone home safely.

At the end of the night, he was driving east on Locust Street when his Chrysler 300 was broadsided by a stolen car at the intersection of 30th Street. 

The car was driven by a 16-year-old girl who was in the early stages of a pursuit with a Milwaukee Police car.  

One of the occupants of Verdin-Williams' car was thrown 100 feet, suffered serious injuries, but survived. 

"It was a really scary moment. It was probably the scariest moment of my life, and it's only by the grace of God, and these firemen that we're even alive," Verdin-Williams said. 

The driver was sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Verdin-Williams is happy she is paying for the crime, but as someone who works with troubled youth, he can't help but have mixed feelings. 

"It's sad because I don't want to see a young person throw away their life like that, but you do want young people to start to think more responsibly and be more accountable for their actions," Verdin-Williams said. 

"I have a lot of sympathy for this girl and I hope and pray that she makes it out the system and changes her life." 

The Alderwoman

Milwaukee's 9th District Alderwoman Chantia Lewis has a voice in city policy as it relates to fighting crime in the city. But last Thanksgiving, she became a victim herself. 

She, her husband and her kids had their vehicle loaded and ready to leave for a holiday getaway when a carjacker approached. 

"When he tapped on the window with the gun, I immediately thought it was someone that I knew, maybe that was playing a joke, because at first I didn’t see the gun. And then his posture told me that this was someone that I knew," Lewis said. "It was really frightening when he opened up the door and put the gun to my head and was like 'get out of the car.'"

Lewis said she didn't initially comply, so the 20-year-old carjacker opened the door. And it was her young son who turned out to be her savior. 

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis describes the attempted carjacking of her vehicle and how it's shaped her views on policy.

"He said, 'mommy who is that?' and when he heard my son say, “who is that?” he leaned into the car and he saw my kids in the back. And, he then proceeded to tell me how lucky I was they were in the car. Then he slammed the door and walked off," Lewis said. 

Lewis said she never initially publicized the crime when it happened because she didn't want it to be about her. 

But now she's telling her story because she wants to lead the charge in creating policy that is about prevention, not punishment when it comes to juvenile crimes. 

"It strikes me as odd that people don’t think that you should give people a second chance. I’ve heard the comments, 'oh, apparently, your experience wasn’t hard enough. Maybe you should have gotten shot, because you wouldn’t have this mentality,'" Lewis said. "By the grace of God I have that mentality because anything could have happened. I could have done something really stupid. And I’m sure I’ve done some things when I was younger that could have set me up for the wrong path."

THE CULTURE

If you're wondering how far the concept of stollies has steeped into portions of the youth culture, look no further than Youtube, where people are uploading videos of everyone from toddlers to adults doing what's called the "stollie dance."  

Bianca Williams launched the Stop the Stollies campaign this year as part of the Cry for Help Foundation.

She was personally driven to get involved in the issue after a family member was incarcerated for stealing cars and another lost his life in a stolen car crash. 

"Some of them say, 'I want a job,' some of the them say, 'I'm hungry,' some of them say, 'I want to stop living like this, I want to stop doing this but it's fun,' some even tell me they didn't know their friends was stealing cars, they just got in it,'" Williams said.

The group goes to Milwaukee Public Schools and other community organizations to educate young people and their parents about how these bad decisions can have long-lasting consequences.

"Some kids say they're bored, they don't want to walk, or they just want to get them some money to get out here, which is get out here, ride around with their friends, have fun and they think stealing cars is fun," Williams said. 

"I think the solution is more youth activities, more youth programs, and more jobs."

No Free Rides

The stollies issue has caught the attention of the City of Milwaukee Youth Council. Earlier this year, the group of students launched "No Free Rides," a PSA and social media campaign designed to make young people think twice before stealing a car or getting into a stolen car. 

"Carjacking isn't cool, car theft isn't cool, and you're killing yourselves and other people," the group's president, Kalen R. Haywood said. 

Many of the stollies adventures are uploaded to social media, which is why the group is trying to make their message viral. 

The group has a message for wannabe car thieves. 

"Don't be stupid. I know you might want to joy ride, you might want to drive around in a car, you might want to have your own car, but, at the end of the day, is it worth killing yourself, or your best friend, or whoever is in the car with you, or going to jail?" Haywood said. 

High Speed

TODAY'S TMJ4 asked Milwaukee rapper Elijah Furquan, aka Genesis Renji, and his producer, Golden Child, to create a song that sheds light on the mindset that leads many young people to steal cars, and to also serve as a cautionary tale against that lifestyle. 

"The stolen car epidemic in the city is the new suicide. If a kid gets into a car, they die easy, so stealing a car is kind of an in-the-moment thing. 'I'm gonna live my life today, I'm not worried about tomorrow,'" Renji said. 

 

Renji, who has roots as a Christian rapper, believes in the power of music to change lives, both negatively and positively. 

"Music changes lives when it's done the right way. A lot of people take hip hop as a negative connotation, depending on what they hear, whether it's through the mainstream media or any other forms of film or streaming. But hip hop is a narrative, it's a form of storytelling," Renji said. "If you're telling the right story the right way, it will connect to the right person. We're not trying to change the entire world at once, but changing somebody's life one at a time, that's going to make a difference." 

The producers behind the Stollies project discuss the inspiration behind the assignment and the rappers talk about music's power to send a message

The Solutions

The situation isn't necessarily all doom and gloom. Data from Milwaukee County's Delinquency and Court Services Division projects a decrease of 35 percent for juvenile charges related to car thefts and armed robberies in 2017.

Mark Mertens credits the decrease to better communication between law enforcement and county agencies, as well as efforts to offer more targeted and specific interventions to juveniles who commit crimes. 

Mark Mertens, an administrator with the Delinquency and Court Services Division of the Milwaukee County Health and Human Services Department, speaks about why many kids are turning to car-related crimes and what city leaders are doing to address it.

“We are talking, we are working together, we’re collaborating,” Mertens said. “More work needs to be done about how do we consolidate resources and how do we assure that there’s good coordination of services?”

The issue has laid bare the age-old debate over punishment versus prevention. 

Alderwoman Lewis has been a leader in the fight against Wisconsin Assembly Bill 92, legislation that would increase the penalties for second-offense carjacking, increase the penalty classification for operating a vehicle without the consent of an owner and make it easier for judges to re-classify juvenile offenders as adults. 

"Now, the answer is lock 'em up.” It’s not the answer. That’s why our jails are 90 percent filled, because that’s not the answer, there is still crime happening" Lewis said. "It just strikes me as odd that we’re talking about spending more money, billions of dollars, on reactionary instead of prevention."

But the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), believes the justice system has failed the general public by "focusing solely on offenders and ignoring victims." 

"Assembly Bill 92 takes into account the most heinous of crimes, like the violent carjackings we are seeing again and again by individuals who have been cycling through our criminal justice system," Sanfelippo said. "Rehabilitation may work for some offenders but it certainly doesn't work for everyone as recent events have revealed."

Stollies is a part of a larger issue that will continue to play itself out in the streets, the courtrooms and among our legislative bodies. 

What isn't completely clear is how to get the message to young people that they aren't invincible. 

"I would probably tell them something that I've had to tell my own kids a few times, it's that you know you never want to be in a position where you make a mistake that you can’t ever undo, that you can't ever fix," Mertens said.