By Erik Meers
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Janette and Greig Fennell had just returned to their San Francisco home one night in 1995, when two gunmen suddenly slipped under the garage door as it was closing. The men locked the couple in the trunk of the car, placed their 9-month-old son, still strapped in his car seat, on the garage floor and sped off with their captives. “I thought, ‘That’s it. They are going to rape me and cut us up,’ ” says Janette, 45, recalling the terrifying ride.

After an hour the thieves stopped, opened the trunk and, at gunpoint, robbed Janette and Greig, 50, of their money, jewelry and ATM card. Then they shut the trunk again and fled in the car of an accomplice. Locked in the dark, the couple began frantically tearing up carpeting and clawing for any wiring within reach, hoping to open the trunk. Finally they found the release cable and managed to pop the lid. “You were really lucky,” an officer told them later, alluding to the potential for serious injury during carjackings. “It never ends like this.”

In fact it didn’t end there for Janette Fennell; the evening’s harrowing ride would only be the start of a longer journey. In 1996 the mother of two (Alexander, now 4, and Noah, 7 months) founded the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC), a small group of volunteers across the U.S. who lobby lawmakers and car companies for the installation of inside trunk latches. “She was the grass-roots driving force [on this issue],” says Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a former state trooper who has championed Fennell’s cause. “She got us thinking about these things.”

Fennell, who uses her four-bedroom Marin County home as a base of operations, began writing to auto executives and government officials, urging the adoption of an inside-trunk escape latch. Their responses often cited a 1984 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruling that concluded there was only a “remote” chance of an emergency release ever being needed. Hoping to disprove their claims, Fennell went in search of statistics. “I stumbled around for months looking for this magic database that I knew had to be out there,” she says. “But it isn’t.”

Soon, Fennell was looking on the Internet for crime information, police statistics and news stories that mentioned people being accidentally or intentionally trapped in car trunks. “On a good day I’d find three; on a bad day I’d work and work and find nothing,” she says. To date, Fennell has documented 1,052 cases of trunk lock-ins over the last 20 years—and 237 deaths from asphyxiation, heatstroke or hypothermia. “In the ’50s, when kids were dying in refrigerators, the law was changed to require that new refrigerators be escapable,” she says. “So why not these prisons on wheels?” Fennell’s data were soon put to use. Citing her work, Representative Stupak sponsored legislation requiring the traffic safety agency to reexamine the issue of trunk latches and report their findings by December.

An unwelcome boost for her case came last year from the deaths of 11 children, aged 2 to 6, who perished in three accidental summertime lock-ins in New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Utah. Suddenly, she says, “we were on The Montel Williams Show, and we had appointments with congressmen.” Then on March 30, Ford announced that it will be the first car company to make emergency releases standard on most of its year 2000 models. In addition, GM has offered to retrofit most of its vehicles made after 1990 at a cost to the owners of $50.

Ironically, Fennell had spent most of her professional life promoting big corporations rather than battling them. The third of seven kids born to a Wisconsin machine repairman and his wife, she spent 12 years as a sales manager for Eastman Kodak before moving to San Francisco, where she took a similar job with shampoo maker Helene Curtis in 1988. At a party in 1992 she met business consultant Greig Fennell, and within six months the couple had married. Though motherhood prompted her to give up working, the 1995 carjacking has turned her into a full-time activist and, says Greig, “a one-woman whirlwind.”

As her campaign gains momentum, Fennell is especially mindful of the children who died last summer. “Those 11 kids would be alive if someone had taken this seriously,” she says. “My job now is to be the voice for the people who couldn’t get out.”

Erik Meers

Megan McCaslin in Marin County and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.