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Arrest made in Harmar carjacking

Chuck Biedka
| Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 12:56 p.m.
Harmar police lead Jeanette 'Jay' Mendenhall into District Justice Carolyn Bengel's office in Brackenridge on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.  Mendenhall is accused of carjacking a woman and her child in Harmar on Monday.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Harmar police lead Jeanette 'Jay' Mendenhall into District Justice Carolyn Bengel's office in Brackenridge on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Mendenhall is accused of carjacking a woman and her child in Harmar on Monday.

When police first received a carjacking report from Harmar on Monday, the victim told them her assailant was a thin male.

But when police made an arrest Wednesday, the “thin male” turned out to be a Verona woman who is transitioning to become a man.

Jeanette Teresa Mendenhall, 32, of Second Ave., Verona, faces a slew of charges stemming from the carjacking at FunFest Entertainment Center in Harmarville on Monday.

Police say Mendenhall, also known as Jay Mendenhall, threatened a Hampton woman with a knife and stole her vehicle.

Mendenhall is listed as male on the arrest report and at arraignment was addressed by a district judge as “Mr. Mendenhall.”

The 30-year-old victim picked Mendenhall's photo from an array of suspect photographs Tuesday afternoon, police and the victim's husband said in separate interviews. The Valley News Dispatch is not naming the victim.

The carjacking took place about 11:30 a.m. Monday when the victim and her two young children pulled into the FunFest parking lot at 2525 Freeport Road.

Police say Mendenhall brandished a knife and told the victim to give up the Kia SUV.

They say the victim told Mendenhall to take her purse. The victim unbuckled both children, ages 8 months and 3 years old, from their car seats and Mendenhall drove off, according to police.

The SUV was found 10 minutes later in Indiana Township after it was wrecked twice, miles apart, and then still driven until a tire and wheel broke off.

A police search with a dog and helicopter failed to locate the suspect, but police said they had an idea who might have been involved.

Before Mendenhall's arrest Wednesday, the victim's husband said he was convinced his wife had prevented a tragedy.

“She flat out saved our kids. I shudder to think what would have happened if they stayed inside the SUV and it crashed,” he said. He added that their life is “completely unraveled, and I think about the innocence he stole from my wife.”

He said they bought the Kia only a month before it was stolen.

“It's been very, very scary and we're trying to stay positive,” he said. He said his wife hasn't slept since the incident.

“Our son is OK,” the husband said. “Every night, he asks us why and who. I don't know how to answer him.”

The husband declined to comment after Mendenhall was arraigned.

Harmar police Chief Jason Domaratz said Mendenhall admitted to taking the SUV, but she didn't know why. “She had no idea where she was going.”

He said Mendenhall doesn't have a driver's license and likely didn't know how to drive.

Arrested without incident

Police weren't able to identify Mendenhall right away, Domaratz said, but they soon started to get clues.

One witness, who isn't named in the police affidavit, said he or she received a text message from “Jay Mendenhall.”

The text stated, “I did something stupid” and asked the person to call. The unnamed witness said Mendenhall “confessed” to taking the Kia.

Mendenhall allegedly told the witness that she hitched a ride with an “elderly couple to get back home.”

The witness knew Mendenhall wore a beanie and dark-rimmed glasses and lives in Verona.

By Monday night, police were able to get surveillance video that showed someone who looked like the suspect walking across the Hulton Bridge from Oakmont to Harmar about 10 that morning.

The next day, the victim was asked to look at eight pictures in a photo lineup. Domaratz said the victim was told the carjacker may or may not be among the photos, and she picked out Mendenhall.According to the affidavit, the victim signed the back of the photo and said, “this is the man that had the knife and took my vehicle.”

A second witness told police that a male with dark beanie, coat and glasses asked for a ride along Nixon Road in Indiana Township, but the witness refused. That's near the spot where a police dog lost the track for the carjacker, police said in the affidavit.

Mendenhall was arrested in a Verona apartment without incident about 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

She is facing three counts of recklessly endangering another person and single counts of aggravated assault, robbery of a vehicle, robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, unauthorized use of a vehicle and possession of an instrument of crime.

Brackenridge District Judge Carolyn Bengel arraigned Mendenhall on Wednesday afternoon.

Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Bob Heister asked Bengel to hold Mendenhall on bond of at least $100,000.

“She is only a recent addition to our community,” Heister said. “She came from the Harrisburg area. We view her as a flight risk.”

Bengel ordered Mendenhall held in the Allegheny County Jail in lieu of $100,000 pending a March 2 preliminary hearing before Cheswick District Judge David J. Sosovicka.

It was unclear if Mendenhall will be placed into a medical unit, special unit, or regular cell block.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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