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Dangerous Roads – Carjacking and the Foreign Service

Foreign Service officers are trained to handle and adapt to any number of highly dangerous situations. One such situation is carjacking, a regrettably common threat in many areas of the world. The perpetrators range from terrorist organizations to petty criminals to opportunistic ne’er-do-wells. Carjackers always want the vehicle, and, on some occasions, they want the people in the car as well. In many cases, a Foreign Service Officer’s training can see them safely through the situation, but unfortunately, sometimes carjacking attempts end in deadly violence.  

Hugh Muir was witness to a tragedy when his friend was murdered during a carjacking in Nairobi. He speaks of the carjacking to C. Robert Beecham in a 2011 interview. Richard Miles recounts his wife’s experience being carjacked in Serbia in a 2007 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. Melissa F. Wells discusses when she and her driver were carjacked in Uganda with Anna Miller Morin. Larry Colbert and David Zweifel both recall carjacking incidents that took place during their service in interviews with Kennedy in 2006 and Thomas Dunnigan in 1996, respectively.

Read about others who died in service to their country.


“The pistol went off. The bullet hit her in the head”

Hugh Muir, Regional Chief of Voice of America, Nairobi, 1981-1983 

MUIR:  Two months after I arrived, on August 14, a terrible tragedy occurred. A friend and colleague from my USIA days, Everly Driscoll, came to Nairobi on an agency assignment to cover a United Nations energy conference. She was the principal science and aerospace correspondent for USIA and had written extensively on the U.S. space program, covering all of the Apollo flights.

One evening, I offered to take her out to dinner at one of Nairobi’s tourist favorites in the suburbs. As we left the lights of downtown I noticed a white Peugeot was following us. I was driving the VOA sedan, also a Peugeot, dark blue.

By now we are on a darkened road, heading west toward the Ngong Hills. The white car stuck with us. Becoming concerned, I decided the closest safe place was the gated, and guarded, VOA residence. As I finally pulled up to my gate, the pursuers pulled in behind us. The Masai guard, fearing the worst, dropped his spear and ran. I got out to open the gate and four men leapt from the white car.

As my car door swung shut, Everly hit the locks. One thief, carrying a pistol, took my wallet and demanded my car keys. I said they were locked in the car. He went around to the passenger side and smashed the window with his pistol. It went off. The bullet hit her in the head. The gunman reached in and opened the door and pulled her onto the ground.

Then the four climbed into my car, backed it around their original vehicle, and drove off. Their car, it turned out, had also been stolen.

A banging sound later came from the trunk. The car’s owner and his passenger were found inside, unharmed. Meanwhile, a neighbor across the road had heard the gunshot and telephoned the police. They arrived half an hour later. “I’m sorry we are late,” the officer in charge told me. “We did not have any petrol and had to send for some.”

I then phoned Washington and told the desk what happened. The neighbor across the street put me up for the night, in his guest room. The next day I was taken to the morgue, where I formally identified the body.

Later in the week I accompanied her casket home to Austin, Texas, and told her parents and friends, gathered in the family living room, what had happened. After a few days back in Washington, I returned to duty in Nairobi. A month or so later I met President Daniel rap Moi’s chief of security at a social event and asked him if he knew anything more about the carjacking.

Yes, he said, adding, “They will not be bothering anyone anymore.” The car had been found. The carjackers were dead. 

“Yemen was that sort of place—the Wild East!”

David Zweifel, Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen, 1981-84

ZWEIFEL:  Two members of the Mission staff were shot during my time in Yemen. These were not terrorist actions, nor of any tremendous consequence. But the incidents did underscore the always tenuous security situation in the country.

The first to get hit was a Public Affairs Trainee, a junior USIS [U.S. Information Service] officer. He was speeding down the highway one day, going to Taiz from Sanaa.

On the way, he passed a scruffy looking man by the side of the road, lugging a weapon longer than he was tall. That was hardly an unusual sight in Yemen where every able-bodied male over the age of ten usually was armed in some way. As the trainee whizzed past, the man motioned to him. Our officer just assumed it was a hitchhiker, so he kept on going.

As it turned out, the armed man was a soldier, setting up a roadblock so the President’s motorcade could come by. He leveled his weapon and let loose a couple of rounds. One bullet came up through the gas tank of the car and landed in our trainee’s rear end. No serious damage, but a good scare.

The other shooting incident involved the AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] Director who, with his family, was visiting a very remote area in the northern part of the country. They were traveling in an official vehicle with a local employee as driver. On the way back down from their destination, they were following another vehicle, apparently full of German tourists, across the essentially trackless gravel plain. The first vehicle pulled off to the side and stopped. Our AID officer and his party pulled around and kept going.

As it turned out, the first vehicle had been stopped by tribal bandits who gave chase. They caught up with the AID vehicle and clearly intended to commandeer it as well.

Well, in the discussion which ensued, one of the young carjacker’s weapon discharged. The bullet caught the AID Director in the Achilles tendon. Once the bandits realized what had happened, they let the Director get back in his vehicle and the driver took him to the nearest hospital for treatment. It was a very painful wound, eventually necessitating medical evacuation.

Yemen was that sort of place — the Wild East!

“‘Your wife has very strong nerves — and that really was a very big pistol!’”

Richard M. Miles, Chief of Mission, Belgrade, 1996-1999

MILES: I should mention the car-jacking of my wife, Sharon. Sharon worked for the International Organization for Migration located in downtown Belgrade. She was driving home one day and had, most unfortunately, left the car doors unlocked — a security no-no.

We have reconstructed what happened and we think that, when she was stopped at a red light, one of the ubiquitous window washer guys, saw that her doors were unlocked and signaled his accomplice to come and jump in the back seat of the car, This fellow stuck a very large pistol in her side and told her to drive out of town.

Now she had her seat belt on and the gunman seemed rather nervous —  his hand that held the pistol was shaking — so she was afraid that if she tried to unbuckle the seat belt and make a run for it, she would be shot right where she was. Ditto, trying to crash into something.

Anyhow, on the highway out of town she pretended to be an addled, stereotypical woman driver, driving erratically, saying, quite falsely, that she was not used to driving on the highway, that her husband only allowed her to drive back and forth to work and so on. In fact, she is a better driver than I am and she loved to drive that BMW 7 series car fast. By the way, the newspaper accounts were more interested in the BMW 7 than in the carjacking itself. A “mocna zver—powerful beast” one said. That description became a family joke.

After a little bit of these theatrics, she pulled over and said, “I can’t do this anymore. You can have the car but I’m leaving.” And she unbuckled her seat belt and got out. That was cool!

Well, she not only wasn’t shot, but the fellow gave her her handbag through the window. He took off in one direction and she took off — on foot — in the other. Later he had an armed standoff with a policeman and later yet, after giving the car an amazing number of dings, managed to drive into a ditch and break one of the wheels.

He was picked up shortly after that and was tried and sentenced to, as I recall, 15 years in prison. It seems that he had only recently been released from prison after finishing a short term for manslaughter.

When she made her police report she had said that the fellow had a very big pistol. The police were somewhat condescending about that description, but, later, when I was talking to the head of the MUP criminal police about all this, he said. “You know, your wife has very strong nerves — and, by the way, that really was a very big pistol!”

“There was this European woman waving her skirts around in the middle of the road”

Melissa F. Wells, United Nations Representative, Uganda, early 1980s

WELLS:  The best known incident, actually, is a time I was not shot at, but it was the first really close encounter with a gun.

I was being driven home, which was in Entebbe, from Kampala. I had actually been at the U.S. Embassy for a reception and it was late — late, like nearly seven o’clock in the evening. By that time, the curfew was in effect. The curfew came into effect later, but no one, for all practical purposes, went out on the streets after seven. It’s like a twenty-five minute, half-hour drive from Kampala to Entebbe if you drive very fast.

I was aware that a car was passing us. I was sort of looking off to the left. We drive on the left there, incidentally. It was passing us, but somehow it didn’t seem to get on with the job of passing us, and that made me turn my head. I could see that the car was keeping up with us.

There were three men in the car. The driver was on the other side, you see. Two men were at the windows and had pistols. They were keeping up with us, and I sort of looked, and my first reaction was, “Oh, no! Here? Me?” I mean, I’d heard about this. It was always happening to someone else, not to you.

They were saying, “Stop the car.”

Of course, all this is split-second. George, the driver, still seemed unaware that this car was keeping up with us, and I said, “George, stop the car! Stop!”

“What, Madam? What?”

I said, “Stop the car!” Because they’ll shoot you to get the car. Then by that time he realized that we were in trouble, and he started slowing down the car. Then the car pulled right in front of us, and as they got out of their car, I sort of went down on the floor of the car, because I thought they would start shooting.

I remember being down there with my nose on the floor of the back seat, thinking, “Is this it? Is this the end? It’s going to end here?” And then, again–you see, I’m practical — I said, “I hope they kill me, because I don’t want to lie here and suffer.” The last thing you want is to need medical help under those circumstances.

There was no shooting, so I came up again, and by this time they were pulling George out of the car. A guy came up to me on this side. I had the window rolled up. He said, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!”

I remember looking at this revolver, because it was the first revolver I had seen in Uganda. I had been used to either AK47s or Lee Enfield rifles, but I’d never seen this revolver. I thought, “Is that a real gun?” Because it was so small!

Then I thought, “If he shoots, the glass is going to come into my face,” which is a stupid thing to think about, because at this point, if you have a hole in your face, whether glass accompanies it or not is totally irrelevant. But this is what happens. Maybe it’s vanity.

I was not going to reach for anything, because just the week before, or two weeks before, a Canadian priest had been killed on the same road, because, apparently, someone who saw it said that as he got out of the car, he tried to reach for his briefcase. The thieves are not sure whether you’re setting off the anti-theft device which will impede their progress out of this place later on or whatever.

“I can’t get out of the car! I’m showing you my hands. I can’t open the door!” It wasn’t funny at that point.

He comes running around the side. Why I didn’t open that door, I do not know. He came out this side, and he opened the door for madam, and I emerged with my hands up. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” George had been dragged across the road there. There was the other man in the driver’s seat. So I got out, and then he jumped in. I don’t know whether he jumped in the front seat or the back seat. Whatever it was, they turned around and got out of there.

Then I was left there on the side of the road, in the dark, and the first thing I thought was, “Where’s George?” He’d been beaten up and was playing dead or wounded on the other side of the road. I got him up, and he was okay. He had a bad gash in his knee. I just put my arms around him and said, “George, we’re alive!”

There weren’t that many cars on the road. I’d wave and see a car go “Whoooosh!” I thought, “I’m going to be here all night waving at all these cars.”

I had a very full pleated skirt on, so the next set of headlights I saw, I jumped out in front and started waving my skirts. [Pantomimes the action.]

They can’t see. Everybody drives very fast. I wanted them to make sure they knew this was a mazuna woman standing here. Something is wrong! If you can help, please help.

So waving this skirt, the headlights keep coming, and I finally go, “Aaagghh!” and move away, because it was a minibus, which was actually stopping. It stopped later on, but it was going so fast, I didn’t know it would stop.

Then they took the news to the hotel that there was this European woman waving her skirts around in the middle of the road. By this point, I was late and everybody called and said, “I wonder if that’s Melissa?”

Then another set of headlights came. Again, I’m going this way, and I go like this [gesturing], you know, like, “Please stop the car!” I hear the brakes, “Eeeeeekkkkk!”

It turned out to be somebody I knew. I said, “Please take us to the Tanzanian Army headquarters.” I knew they had a radio in touch with the Ugandan Army headquarters in Kampala.