By Allan Lengel
One day in December, Nejad Shaut peered from the behind the bulletproof glass of his Livernois gas station around 11 p.m., only to see a customer getting carjacked.
An armed 6-foot-1 man with braids, clad in a blue North Carolina jacket, hopped into the red 2002 GMC Yukon with tinted windows and 26-inch rims and ordered the driver out of the vehicle, according to a police report. The 38-year-old car owner from Battle Creek ran toward the station store, ducking when he heard shots. The carjacker took off in the stolen vehicle.
“They just wanted the car,” Shaut recalled. ”They took the car and the rims in the car. Trust me. I worked at about seven gas stations. It’s all the same.”
Similar incidents have played out all too often at Detroit’s gas stations during the past year, from the east side to the west, at all times of the day and night.
Carjackings. Robberies. Beatings. Shootings. Drug dealers and panhandlers haranguing customers. In some instances, thugs take over stations, refusing to leave, acting as if they own the place. One cop recalls a man last summer bringing a garden hose to the Speedway station at I-75 and East Jefferson and washing his car for about three hours until police arrived and ordered him to leave.
In a city trying desperately to make a comeback, gas stations -- many which double as convenience stores -- are a visible reminder of the daunting challenges and dangers of everyday tasks. A shortage of cops makes the problem worse.
Customers are understandably fearful of filling up in the city, particularly at certain stations, particularly at night. Some refuse to get gas in the city. Some station owners and employees also fear for their safety. Some stay open 24/7 to avoid break-ins overnight.
“We get a fair share of criminal activity at our gas stations,” says Detroit Chief 36th District Judge Kenneth King, a lifelong Detroiter, who says he prefers his wife not fill up the car in the city.
“I don’t want her to go to gas stations because women are typically easier prey.”
The Detroit Police Department estimates about 12-15 carjackings occur each month, with roughly 30 percent happening at gas stations.
“If you go to a station and you’re not paying attention, that’s a perfect setting for a victim,” says Sgt. Vernal Newson, who heads the Detroit Police carjacking unit.
Ample examples of crime
Although police don’t compile crime statistics specifically for gas stations, plenty of anecdotes illustrate the problem -- including high-profile incidents in the past year or so.
One involved Aaron Brantley, an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was knocked to the ground and carjacked at a BP gas station on West McNichols near the University of Detroit Mercy around 10 a.m. last year in February. He crawled past bystanders. No one helped until he got inside.
Last May, there was the incident at the Citgo gas station at Davison and Linwood involving well-known Pastor Marvin Winans, who was robbed, assaulted and carjacked around 10 a.m. He suffered a broken finger.
In October, cab driver Jawan McQueen was robbed and shot to death at a Mobil gas station on Connor and Harper Avenue at 4:20 a.m.
And on Thursday, a man was found fatally shot inside a car at a Sunoco gas station on McNichols near Greenfield shortly before midnight. The man, who wasn't immediately identified, was found inside a late-model Buick with a Mississippi license plate, according to WWJ radio.
"I'm an easy target"
Suburbanite George Molnar is among those who won’t buy gas in Detroit anymore.
“I used to fill up in Detroit, “ says Molnar of West Bloomfield. “I’m a salesperson I travel all over Metropolitan Detroit. I won’t get gas any more. I went to Warren and Trumbell. I was afraid for my life. Ever since that reverend got carjacked I realize, I drive a nice car, I’m an easy target. I just won’t do it.”
Even some off-duty cops have concerns.
“I did run low on gas and fill up at a station at 6 Mile and John R,” said one Detroit Police officer, a suburbanite who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. He was in civilian clothes. He said people hanging around the station kept watching him.
“At no point did I take my hand off my pistol. I’d never do that again. It’s a dangerous thing.”
Picking spots selectively
To say that all gas stations in the city are dangerous would overstate the case. Drive through the city, from 7 Mile to Woodward to Grand River to Gratiot to Fort Street downtown to Oakwood Boulevard in Southwest Detroit, and you’ll find plenty people filling up at all times without incident. Many customers from the suburbs and Detroit say they’re selective which station they use, and avoid filling up at night or at poorly lit stations or where people loiter, sell drugs and beg for money.
Barbara Palmer, a Midtown resident interviewed at a Marathon gas station at Grand River and Avery just north of downtown, said:
“I come here quite often. It’s pretty decent here. It’s pretty secure right here. I never have any problems.” But she adds: “I don’t try to do anything at night.”
Others still fill up in the city, but have been forced to change habits.
LaDena Brantley, 35, says her grandfather Aaron Brantley -- the 86-year-old who was carjacked and beaten during the day -- never goes alone anymore when he fills up. She or another relative tags along.
“He’s very leery about going to the gas station,” she said. “Other than that, he’s fine, he’s doing well.
“Some of his church members, they’re very leery about going to the gas station, even before the incident,” Brantley added.
"They don't have to see the wallet"
She said “there’s a lot of young kids there” hanging out at stations, sizing up the customers.
“They sit there and watch who comes into the gas station. They watch what kind of car they have, how they’re dressed. They don’t have to see the wallet. They see what you have on.”
Brantley feels the police chief or mayor could have shown concern after her grandfather’s highly-publicized carjacking.
“They should have come over and said ‘I’m sorry this happened to you.’ Who knows, it could have been their grandfather, it could have been their father, it could have been a member of their family.”
In some instances, the perception of danger at Detroit gas stations can trump any realities.
Debbie Damian of Troy, a paralegal who works downtown, says she never had a problem filling up on Woodward Avenue in the city after work. But she stopped about a month ago because of pressure from family and friends.
She said her mother, grown daughter and friends kept reprimanding her every time they found out she filled up in the city.
“I’m going to get robbed or raped or shot or kidnapped,” she recalled them saying. “They gave me much too much flak.”
Running a station can be tough
Running a gas station and keeping it orderly, can be a daunting task in the city -- particularly in certain parts.
The Detroit officer who discussed filling up his tank at station at 6 and John R said the lack of police resources makes it tough to address the problem.
“There’s just not enough people, not enough enforcement,” he said. “There’s also bigger fish to fry. We’ve got to stop the shootings. We’ve got to stop the home invasions.”
Gas station calls are listed as low priorities when “you’re not bleeding, you’re not dying,” he said.
As a result, he said, some station owners and employees feel they’ve had to make peace and reach an uneasy alliance with neighborhood thugs.
“They know if they tell them to get off the property, eventually they’ll retaliate,” he said, explaining that some let dealers hang out.
In exchange, he said, “the dope dealers allow them to leave without robbing them, let them transfer money out of the store and change shifts. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We know this, everyone in the department knows this.”
“Moe,” a gas station employee at the Marathon on Grand River and Avery, says he has “no problems at the station” because workers keep undesirables away.
“We kick them out,” says Moe, who declined to give his last name as he stood behind bulletproof plexiglass. “You got to have balls to work in Detroit.”
Ali Wazni, the manager at the Mobile gas station at Trumbell and Warren isn't as lucky.
Wazni of Lebanese descent, says when he tells loiterers to to leave, “They tell me to ‘fuck off. This is my neighborhood. Why don’t you go back to your country.’”Wazni, standing inside his gas station store recently, explained that he has to deal with drug dealers and panhandlers loitering. He said one day a man walked up with a lounge chair and parked himself in front of the store.
He said twice in recent months customers have had their car windows smashed and items stolen from their vehicles when they’ve stepped into the station’s convenience store.
“A lot of customers stop coming because of the begging,” he adds.
He said his boss doesn’t want employees carrying a gun for fear of a tragedy. Last March, at a BP gas station at Meyers and Fenkell, employee Ibrahim Saleh fatally shot a customer over a dispute about the price of condoms and was charged with murder. A trial is set for March 11.
Wazni said employees rely on the police, who often respond hours after the call, if at all. And when they do, dealers and panhandlers run off, only to return when the cops leave.
He said he’s talked to the owner about hiring a security guard, but “he said it was too expensive.”
Consequently, he says, he feels unsafe.
“After dark, I’m afraid to get out” from behind the bulletproof shield.
At the Livernois station owned by Shaut, which recently had a carjacking, drug sales are also a problem.
“A guy came here every single day, like a shift,” he said.
Shaut who owns the gas station with his brother, said he had his cousin, who was a cop in a neighboring community, come by for a while after his shift and hang out and bother the dealers. They vanished, he says, but eventually returned.
He said some try to sell marijuana inside. He kicks them out, but he said some don’t move on right away because they know the police won’t respond immediately.
He said recently he had a kid, maybe 8, steal some milk and a box of cereal. He said one customer bought a $2 scratch-off Lottery ticket. When he saw he didn’t win, he came back in the store and demanded his money back. When Shaut refused to give a refund, he said the guy grabbed some candy off the shelf and tried to leave.
Shaut says he pressed a button behind the bullet proof glass to lock the front door so the customer couldn’t flee. He then came out from behind the counter, brandishing a gun, and ordered him to return the candy.
“You don’t want to play,” he recalled telling the man, who returned the candy and apologized.
Even his relatives won’t fill up in the city. “They will go somewhere in the suburbs just to be safe,” he said. “You don’t want to risk your life over gas.”
“Sometimes I think it’s not even worth it,” he says of operating the business.
Sgt. Newson of the carjacking unit advises that customers should make eye contact with people loitering around stations.
“Don’t be a victim, let them see you looking at them,” he said. “Speak loudly, say ‘hi’” to people hanging around."
If you’re getting robbed though, that’s a different story, he said.
“We tell people who are in the process of being robbed, that’s when you want to minimize eye contact.”
He advises people to fill up with someone who can watch your back, and don’t talk on the cellphone. He said some thieves will stand at a bus stop and walk over and steal a cellphone if they see someone talking.
“That’s a market in itself, especially with the the iPhone and Galaxy,” he said.
He said carjackings have become increasingly popular because manufacturers have made it tougher to heist parked cars. Some stolen vehicless end up in chop shops or shipped overseas to places like Dubai, Iraq, Uganda and Angola, according to Newson.
The sergeant also noted that carjackings aren’t limited to Detroit and happen in the neighboring communities like Southfield and Warren.
City Council ordinance
Ed Deeb, founder and chairman of the Michigan Food and Beverage Association, is concerned about the situation.
“We’ve been in touch with the city and Mayor Bing and the police department. We know they’re going their jobs,” but they don’t have enough resources. He said they need to go after more revenue like uncollected taxes so they can pay for more cops.
“The gas stations we talk to are not very happy,” he said. “They worry about their lives and their employees. They need better protection.”
He said some stations hire plain-clothed security, which is “adding to the expenses.” He said most can’t afford to because of the thin profit margin for gas and food products. He also suggests customers use credit cards rather than cash to make gas station owners less vulnerable to robberies.
Last year, Councilman Kwame Kenyata raised the prospect of an ordinance that would require stations with crime problems to hire security. The law department is in the process of drafting legislation and is trying to figure a way to enact an ordinance that wouldn’t financially break some businesses.
Councilman Gary Brown said he's concerned about the problem and would like to see stations -- as well as coney island eateries -- close at 11 p.m. to cut down on late-night and early morning incidents. He’d also like to see more cops on the street.
“We’ve got to find a way to protect our citizens,” Brown said.