How a victim took on Detroit crime and won

By Viranel Clerard
Special to The Detroit News

Ever since I can remember, my father has forbidden me from hanging out in Detroit.

"I don't want you killed," he'd say. He's a Haitian immigrant who worked hard to protect me, even after we moved from Detroit to Eastpointe when I was 5. "Nothing good ever happens in the city after dark."

Dad's warnings weren't enough.

I always felt drawn to the city. I took up photography during my freshman year in high school six years ago and I've spent my free time ever since using my camera, iPhone and laptop to photograph and record the awesome sights of Detroit.

Earlier this month, however, I finally experienced Detroit crime. I saw the police response in the city and in the suburbs.

Unlike some, my story has a happy ending. I used technology to search for my attackers. Within 36 hours, I tracked them down, found my stuff and got it back.

I took on Detroit crime and I won.

A meeting in the dark

It began three weeks ago, when I received a text from one of my earliest boyhood friends.

"Please help! I'm stuck in PA can you get me a Megabus ticket back to Detroit?"

Even though I hadn't talked to him in months, for $20 I helped him out. Ever since, he's been trying to pay me back.

One recent Monday night , he suggested I meet him in Detroit after my shift as a janitor at The Detroit News ended at 11:45 p.m. When I arrived at the unlit corner not far from his mom's house, he got into the car and handed me the money.

As we chatted, two guys in their early 20s ran up on us from both sides and started shouting at us.

"Where's the money? Give me your phones!"

I fought back until I saw something I thought was a gun. I tried to run out of the car and got punched in the eye so hard I fell into the street. They hopped in my car and got away with my bag, my phone and my laptop.

I blamed my friend for everything — getting into the situation and having me come out in the middle of the night to a neighborhood without a single streetlight.

We tried stopping every car we saw and begged them to take us to a police station, but no one helped.

I realized how different this neighborhood is from mine. Rundown homes and blocks and blocks without streetlights. I didn't see a single car in the driveways. I wouldn't want to be stuck there even in the daytime.

We decided to run to his mother's house, which was just across the railroad tracks and Interstate 75 in Hamtramck.

Besides calling police, I was in a hurry to call my sister. I needed her to activate the "Find my iPhone" app I installed on all my family members' iPhones. The app uses GPS to tell you where your lost device is located.

I was convinced that if I acted quickly, I could get my stuff back and return home without being suspiciously late.

'I'm just glad you're alive'

"Who did this?" his mom yelled when we got there, at about 12:30 a.m. "It's probably them boys you've been hangin' with. What (did) I tell you? I told you quit hanging with them boys!"

She eyed me suspiciously.

She didn't want the cops at her house, but she did let us use a cell phone and sent us to a nearby gas station to call police.

I called my older sister first.

"It's me, Vern. I lost my phone. Can you use your phone to find it?"

The app told her the location was unavailable. The crooks had turned it off. Eventually, I admitted to her I'd been carjacked.

Now I was even more nervous. My dad told me me at least once a week not to play around in Detroit. He always told me to come straight home from work. And I'd told him a while ago that I no longer trusted my friend, who had left his dad's home in Eastpointe when he was 18 and had gone to live with his mom.

Viranel Clerard suffered bruising to his right eye during a carjacking in Detroit on Aug. 6, 2013

Finally, I called 911. Within 10 minutes, a Hamtramck police car arrived and the officers got out and offered some comforting words. They couldn't help because the carjacking happened on the Detroit side of I-75, but they called EMS to look at my eye, which was now quite swollen. And they called the Detroit Police Department.

When the DPD arrived a half-hour later, the officers never got out of the car. They took some notes on a notepad and I heard crazy crimes being reported on their radio.

As I gave them my information, my family drove up. Dad surprised me with a hug. I started going on and on about how sorry I was and how bad I knew I messed up.

"I'm just glad you're alive," he said.

Getting on right track

I went to bed with a pack of frozen peas over my eye and my dad's iPhone in my hand.

I awoke at 5 a.m. and I used the app to remotely lock my laptop and I sent a message to the lock screen of my iPhone indicating my phone was lost or stolen and which displayed my home phone number. I was doing all I could to track my stolen things, but I knew I had to work faster before they were fenced.

At 8:57 a.m., I got a notification telling me my phone had been located on Seven Mile and Outer Drive, showing the phone moving toward my house.

When the signal turned away from my house, my dad and I decided we'd try to track it. As we got close, we saw my car speed past us, heading in the opposite direction!

We pulled into a gas station and called the Detroit police. They told us to wait there. After about 30 minutes, we saw my car again and it made a sudden U-turn then the signal disappeared. After another hour of waiting for police, we decided to keep searching for my bright blue Hyundai Elantra.

I looked at the recent locations on the app and one of them was a cell phone store near Seven Mile between Hoover and Outer Drive.

We arrived to see my car backed into a spot on the side of the store.

It was empty. I had my keys. I decided to steal it back.

I ran up to my car, started it and moved it to the front of the store. Then I ran in to see if the crooks were inside. I found my bag, but no phone or laptop.

Two guys left as I entered, so I turned to see where they went. From the corner of my eye, I saw my friend round the corner.

The carjacking had been a setup.

I started to follow when a guy I recognized from the carjacking told me I'd better get out of there. He held his hand under his shirt as if he had a gun.

They all hopped into a green car and sped away. I decided to follow. My dad followed me.

At Seven Mile and Hoover, they turned. That's when I saw the police car.

I started doing all types of things to get their attention — I drove against traffic and headed toward the cops like I was playing chicken. It worked. They pulled me over and I explained what just happened. I begged them to come back with me to the store and they finally agreed to follow me there.

Back at the store, I asked the clerk if anyone tried to sell him an iPhone. He said no. Then he spotted the cops, still in their car outside. Only then did he remember the two guys who were in earlier.

"Oh, remember when you were just in here and got that bag? Those two guys you saw tried to sell me an iPhone for $100," he said.

I told him I wanted it back and after a bit of resistance, he reached under the counter and handed over my iPhone.

Now I had my iPhone and my car, but no license or registration. I asked the cops outside if it was OK for me to drive home in a car that was reported stolen. They told me to wait. My dad sat with me on the curb.

After five minutes, the Detroit cops just drove off.


Viranel Clerard of Eastpointe, Mich., stands next to his car on the street corner where he was carjacked at gunpoint on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Clerard used an app to find his car and possessions. (Detroit News file photo)


A wakeup call

We went home, hid our valuables and headed to the Detroit police station to report the car as found. They told us to throw away two backpacks that were left in my back seat. Outraged at the their disinterest, we left for the locksmith to change locks on the house.

While we were there, my sister called. There was a man at the house who wanted the backpacks the carjackers had left behind. My dad and I immediately alerted Eastpointe police and they agreed to meet us at my house.

We arrived to find the friend who was with me when I was carjacked. Within 10 minutes, three Eastpointe cop cars pulled up, questioned him and searched the backpacks. They let him go because the crimes happened out of their jurisdiction.

Instead of throwing the backpacks away, my dad and I decided to take them to my friend's father, who lived just six houses away. His father and stepmom are a lot like my parents — they are great parents.

We told them what happened and gave them the bags. I texted my friend and to tell him that his father now had them. Within five minutes, he called.

I let his dad answer.

While his father yelled, I spoke with his stepmother outside. She said that on the night of the carjacking, her stepson had called her crying and begging for money.

I went to sleep around midnight. Twenty-four hours ago I'd lost my car, cellphone, laptop and my bag. I now had everything except my laptop.

I awoke to an email from the app telling me my laptop was located at an address in Troy. Troy police agreed to meet us nearby.

When we arrived, two police cars, one a K-9 unit, greeted us. .

They took my information and the officers huddled as if forming a game plan. They told us to wait there.

At the house, they found a woman and her son, who said he owned the cellphone store where I'd found my iPhone. He denied knowing anything about the laptop, even after police told him the GPS placed it at his house.

When police threatened him with a search warrant, the man and his mom spoke privately. She came out with my computer.

Forty-five minutes after they left us, the police returned with my severely scratched up laptop.

Looking back, I've learned a lot. I've seen the city and suburban police departments at work, I've seen how your closest friends can turn into your worst enemies, and I've seen a side of this city that I will never forget.

My fondness for Detroit was not affected. I look at the carjacking as a wake-up call — a reminder to be more alert and use common sense.

My parents were right, Detroit is a dangerous place.

I still want to be one of the few who stick around as it gets back on its feet.

I know Detroit has plenty more hidden gems for me to find. I just don't think I'll be going out and finding them alone anymore — whether or not I have my iPhone with me.

Viranel Clerard, 19 (at the time of publication in 2013), was an aspiring photo journalist who worked as a janitor at The Detroit News.