A social media trend, a stolen car and speeding prove a deadly combination

A day later, Buffalo was learning about the young lives that were lost and the tragic consequences of a dangerous trend spread through the social media app TikTok. — Reuters

A horrific crash Monday left four teens dead, another hospitalised and the driver facing criminal charges.

A day later, Buffalo was learning about the young lives that were lost and the tragic consequences of a dangerous trend spread through the social media app TikTok.

The victims, identified by Buffalo police Tuesday, are Marcus Webster, 19; Swazine Swindle, 17; Kevin Payne, 16; and Ahjanae Harper, 14.

Another 14-year-old girl was recovering at Erie County Medical Center. She was initially being treated in the trauma intensive care unit, but she has been upgraded to good condition.

The 16-year-old who police say was behind the wheel of the stolen Kia was charged with a misdemeanour count of unauthorised use of a vehicle and a felony count of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was issued an appearance ticket and must appear in court on Nov 15. The Erie County District Attorney's Office is looking to file additional charges.

"You've got all these young people 14 to 19 who have their entire lives ahead of them and four lives are lost now. They're gone — and now you have two other people directly affected, in addition to families and friends, who are forever impacted by this," Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said.

Families and schools across Buffalo were grieving Tuesday.

Buffalo Public Schools issued an emailed statement, offering condolences to "everyone impacted by this unfortunate and horrific tragedy." The driver has not been identified because of his age.

Charter School for Applied Technologies posted a message on its website that one of the victims was a former student who attended the school "until very recently."

"We have dispatched additional counsellors and social workers to the building," the message said, noting that the death was not related to another death of a senior at the school earlier this month.

A cousin of the youngest victim, Ahjanae Harper, started a GoFundMe fundraiser to help pay for funeral arrangements and to support Ahjanae's baby daughter.

"Ahjanae did leave a piece of her down her on earth and that is her baby Tru. Tru has to go through life without her mother," the girl's cousin Victoria Hutchins wrote on the GoFundMe page. "She was full of life and had so much more life in her to live. If you had a chance to know Ahjanae then you're a blessed individual. Ahjanae was always happy kept a smile on her face. Ahjanae was such a sweetheart. Unfortunately she was took away from us unexpectedly in a horrible car accident."

The cousin said that Ahjanae would have turned 15 on Nov 1.

Once the identities of the victims were confirmed Monday night, Gramaglia said, he spoke with Buffalo Schools Superintendent Tonja Williams "so that all these schools can do their best to bring in grief counsellors for fellow students and faculty."

The crash occurred at about 6.40am Monday on the westbound entrance of the Scajaquada Expressway from the inbound Kensington Expressway, a heavily travelled intersection in the heart of the city.

The Kia Sportage, reported stolen about 8pm Sunday from a location in Buffalo and traveling at an excessive speed, apparently hit a wall. Everyone but the driver was ejected through the sunroof, police said.

Police said they are trying to determine who was involved in the theft of the car and where the youths travelled in the vehicle before the crash.

"We're investigating the circumstances of how and when the car was stolen, as well as the movement of the car throughout the night. All of that is still under investigation. That includes video canvasses and license plate readers. We have the black box. It's being downloaded," Gramaglia said, referring to the device in the vehicle that would have recorded data at the time of the crash.

Authorities across the nation have reported a rash of thefts of Kias. They say many young people are learning how to hot-wire the vehicles through videos posted to the social media app TikTok.

Buffalo police have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Kias stolen locally. In all of 2020, 55 Kias were reported stolen to Buffalo police, according to data provided by the Buffalo Police Department. In 2021, there were 69. So far this year, 177 have been reported stolen.

"Look at the numbers," Gramaglia said. "You can plainly see that this is a significant problem."

Auto thefts skyrocketed across the nation during the pandemic. Earlier this year, Gramaglia said, Buffalo saw a notable decrease.

"Come spring and summer, they have gone the opposite direction," he said.

As of Oct 7, 1,009 car thefts were reported to Buffalo police this year, compared to 1,045 during the same period in 2021, police records show.

But during Sept 10 to Oct 7, the city saw 126 reports of stolen vehicles, compared to 66 during the same period in 2021.

"Cars are being stolen for a couple of reasons," Gramaglia said.

In some cases, they're being used to commit some other crime, such as a robbery or a shooting. But in many cases, it is young people taking them for a joy ride before they dump them somewhere, he said.

Gramaglia, a frequent critic of some bail reform measures, pointed out that stealing a car, whether by a juvenile or an adult, is not considered a bail-qualifying offense.

"So every time these kids get arrested, they have to be given an appearance ticket," he said. "There's no accountability. There's no consequences to driving around in a stolen car."

Buffalo police have noticed an increase in the number of Kias being stolen lately. But Gramaglia said that in most cases, cars left running or with the keys inside are the ones getting stolen.

"Those are still far and away why cars are being stolen and stolen so easily," he said.

He urged vehicle owners to use common sense, to lock their cars and to not leave key fobs inside vehicles. – The Buffalo News, N.Y./Tribune News Service

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