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Detroit — Following key arrests in a spate of weekend carjackings, Detroit Police Chief James Craig on Tuesday urged residents to be careful of their surroundings and stepped back from an earlier statement that indicated he would avoid pumping gas in Detroit overnight.

He didn't mean to suggest, Craig later told The News, that Detroit gas stations aren't safe late at night.

"If this is the way you took it, that's not the way it was meant to come off," Craig said. "I have not had to buy gas overnight.

"I would if I had to, but I'd be selective of my surroundings," he said. By that, he means he would consider the lighting and whether anyone was loitering nearby.

Craig lauded detectives when he announced at a Tuesday morning news conference the arrests of three suspects in a series of violent weekend carjacking attempts. The violence left one man dead and another injured.

During the conversation with reporters Tuesday morning, Craig was asked if he would gas up overnight in the city.

"I wouldn't, but if I had to, I would," Craig said. "But I'd probably be very aware of my surroundings."

Although he has warned residents to be careful in the past, they were his strongest statements to date about the risks at some gas stations in Michigan's largest city after dark. And they came just more than a year after Mayor Mike Duggan asked for an apology from a suburban official who, among other statements, advocated against buying gas in Detroit.

It was at about 2:30 a.m. Monday when a man was killed by three people who police say attempted to steal the victim's late-model Ford Mustang in what was one of a string of carjacking attempts early that day.

Craig said suspects had been tracked down and arrested by the "determination and hard work" of Detroit police detectives along with the help of the Michigan State Police.

"They saw that Mustang and they wanted it," he said. "This was a crime of opportunity that could have happened anywhere."

Mark A. Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association, thanked the Detroit Police Department and the Michigan State Police for the work that led to the arrests.

Griffin said gas stations statewide perform a valuable service by providing fuel and convenience store items, often 24 hours a day.

"It is impossible for these business owners to ensure that criminals won't pick their locations as the scene for random acts of violence," Griffin said.

"We don't believe that gas stations, as a general rule, are not as safe as any other business or public place. We do agree with Police Chief Craig, that everyone needs to be aware of their surroundings. Not just at gas stations, but at all times when they are out in public," Griffin said.

Craig pointed out that many gas station and carjacking incidents in the city occur between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Crime at gas stations has long been a problem. Last week, Detroit police launched "Operation Safe Pump," a warrant sweep that focused on gas stations that allow criminal activity.

Craig said Tuesday his department was targeting carjackers, especially those preying on victims at gas stations.

"So far, we have put a tremendous effort into carjackings and gas station robberies," Craig said. "Carjacking numbers have taken a tremendous drop. We are also working with gas station owners in an attempt to make their stations safer for their customers."

According to Detroit police statistics, carjackings in the city are down 19 percent from the previous year and 37 percent from 2013. There have been 153 carjackings in Detroit through May 24, the most recent figures available.

Craig's words of caution aren't the first time a high-profile person in Metro Detroit has cautioned patrons about safety at Detroit gas stations.

Last year, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson caused a stir when, in a New Yorker article in which he criticized Detroit, he said: "You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That's just a call for a carjacking."

Duggan called on Patterson to apologize, but the executive insisted the gas comments were just good advice.

Craig in October 2013 said he narrowly avoided a carjacking himself on a Friday night while driving an unmarked police car on Jefferson, adding then that when he began his post in July 2013, he found carjacking was "almost like a way of life in Detroit."

Craig made national news in January last year when he told The News he believed armed citizens deter crime — an unusual stance for an urban police chief. In May 2014, the chief was featured in a National Rifle Association publication, America's 1st Freedom, in a cover story titled "A Show of Courage in Detroit," in which Craig reiterated his support for citizens using guns to protect themselves.

On Tuesday, Craig declined to go into detail about the suspects in the latest rash of carjacking attempts or how they were arrested, saying more information would be released later.

According to police, the thieves first struck at about 12:50 a.m. Monday at the Citgo gas station in the 14800 block of East Warren, where they stole a minivan.

They then tried another carjacking at Grand River and Heritage a few minutes later.

At 2:20 a.m. Monday, they tried to get into a car at St. Joseph and Mitchell where they pistol whipped the victims.

Finally, they tried to steal the late-model Mustang at the Sunoco station in the 2300 block of Gratiot, where the vehicle's owner, Gregory Whitfield, 31, was shot to death.

According to authorities, the carjackers drove alongside Whitfield's vehicle and tried to steal it. Whitfield was shot as he tried to drive away. He ended up crashing into a building almost directly across the street from the gas station.

Police are also investigating a second fatal shooting that took place at a city gas station early Tuesday morning, this time at the Valero station at the corner of Plymouth and Schaefer on the city's west side.

At Craig's press conference, police said the latest homicide is under investigation.

More recently on May 18, Detroit police arrested five carjacking suspects involved in two separate incidents on the city's west side.

Three men, two aged 18 and one 24, and two women, 19 and 17, were taken into custody, police said.

tgreenwood@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2023

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed to this report.

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