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Despite some progress, juvenile auto theft remains the scourge Pinellas can’t escape

By Zachary T. Sampson
Crime scene investigators examine the scene where three teens were killed and one was injured after the stolen SUV they were in violently wrecked west of US 19 on Tampa Road in August. JIM DAMASKE | Times

Despite some progress, Pinellas County remains the epicenter of juvenile car theft in Florida, a crime that threatens everyone on the road every day, authorities say.

Officers arrested 359 juvenile car thieves in 2016, nearly 60 more than any other county in the state. The arrests were down from the year before, thanks to law enforcement’s near-constant attention to the issue. Still, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said it remains a "monumental problem."

"We’re far from being in a position where we can say we’ve made the right amount of progress on this," Gualtieri. "We have not. "

The problem may be spreading, too. Hillsborough County’s juvenile car theft arrests nearly doubled last year to 301, according to state data. That tied it for second most with Miami-Dade, a county with double the population.

The Tampa Bay Times has chronicled the epidemic in its "Hot Wheels" series, talking to young car thieves in Pinellas, their parents, police, judges and local leaders to understand why car theft is so popular. Reporters found that in an 18-month period, kids crashed stolen cars at least once every four days.

TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: HOW TEENS ARE DRIVING PINELLAS COUNTY’S CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC

HOT WHEELS: Kids are driving Pinellas County’s car-theft epidemic. It’s a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game.

Eight Pinellas teens have died in incidents involving stolen cars in the last two years alone, including three this summer.

Police, politicians and community members say the Times’ series has changed how they understand and treat the juvenile auto theft problem. U.S Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, has held three community meetings and is planning another while promising to look for funding for youth programs. State legislators have stiffened the law for the worst offenders.

And St. Petersburg police, inspired by the series which included a first-of-its kind database, began this spring to more comprehensively track how cars are stolen. The department posts online each week about how many vehicles were left unlocked or running, warning owners to be vigilant.

The numbers remain too high and the danger too great, law officers said. In June, Clearwater police said a 16-year-old boy was lucky to be alive after crashing a stolen Nissan between trees. The impact shore off the front left of the car; the boy had faced at least six grand theft auto arrests in the previous two years.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway is planning to soon visit the Juvenile Detention Center to talk to kids about what put them there, something he said he hasn’t done in years.

"We’ve talked to the community. We’ve talked to the kids on the street. It’s time for us to have a conversation with the kids in custody," Holloway said. "Just like you did in your story, it’s time for one of us — law enforcement, counselors — to ask: Why are you doing this?"

WRONG WAY: At 15, Isaiah Battle was the county’s No. 1 car thief. He had every reason to stop.

What might he hear? That it’s about being bored, about looking cool, about the thrill of driving fast and showing off. And that for every kid who gets locked up, another surfaces to take their place. In August, 16-year-old Isaiah Battle, once the most arrested car thief in Pinellas County, was sentenced to 20 months in prison. His sentence won’t matter to the other kids, he said; the people who take cars just get "younger and younger."

"It ain’t going to affect nobody," Isaiah said. "If people want to take cars, they’re going to still steal cars. Whatever they want to do, they’re going to do at the end of the day."

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THREE BOYS DIE IN STOLEN VEHICLE

Three boys dead after fiery crash in stolen SUV, Pinellas sheriff says

Teens in stolen car crash had 126 arrests; murder charges possible (w/video)

•••

Juvenile auto theft arrests in Florida increased from 2,307 in 2015 to 2,810 last year. Some of the biggest counties — Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Duval reported upticks, as large as 145 arrests.

Pinellas’ arrests dropped from 499 to 359, but that total was still more than any other county for the second year in a row. It was one of only two counties in the state to arrest more juveniles for car theft than adults. The other, Lee County, had just a fraction of Pinellas’ total.

Enforcement, Gualtieri said, helped the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies contain the problem. But it hasn’t made children stop stealing cars.

Pinellas tallied 1,124 stolen vehicle reports in the first half of 2017, he said, up from 1,064 the same period the year before.

St. Petersburg reported 719 through September, down just eight from the same period in 2016. Last week, Holloway touted the 1.1 percent drop at a news conference, a sign that even a slight dent can cause celebration.

Arrests rose in Hillsborough last year after deputies started focusing on the crime following a surge in reports of people breaking into unlocked cars, said Sheriff’s Col. J.R. Burton. There was no evidence that teens were coming from across the bay in Pinellas.

"These are homegrown problems for us," Burton said.

Gualtieri said the popularity of auto theft among teens is "a sign of a statewide problem with the juvenile justice system.

"But that it is uniquely exacerbated here in Pinellas County."

•••

Juvenile justice reform is underway, but legislators say it’s still too early to tell if their efforts are working.

In the spring, Florida passed a "prolific juvenile offender" bill, which allows officials to keep some kids with a high number of felony charges on electronic monitors after they get out of detention centers. State law dictates that children can only be held for 21 days before sentencing. Often, they are released home in just a day or two.

In interviews for the "Hot Wheels" series, teens described time at the detention center as easy, even comfortable, and that didn’t deter them from committing more crime.

The prolific offender bill went into effect this month. Gualtieri said he is optimistic but worried that it did nothing to change the 21-day rule.

"I’m concerned that these kids on the front end are going to be back out within 21 days, and that the active electronic monitoring is not going to be enough," he said.

State Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who helped craft the legislation, said legislators will assess how it is working before the next session and then look at other possible reforms, including adding bed space at juvenile programs.

In December, the state Department of Juvenile Justice will reexamine its scoring mechanism, which helps determine how long a child stays in a detention center while awaiting trial.

The DJJ is expecting "the issue of grand theft auto to be a part of the conversation," it said in a statement. "We look forward to hearing from national experts as well as our Florida stakeholders as we examine best practices moving forward."

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, has been especially troubled by the deaths of the three teen boys in the stolen car crash in Palm Harbor in August. Rouson took his three youngest sons to the boys’ funerals.

He has considered forming partnerships with faith leaders, businesses, schools, as well as filing legislation to better support youth programs, but he said he is not ready to offer specific proposals.

"It’s my full intent to not let those three lives lost in that horrific crash two months ago go down in vain," he said.

Meanwhile, it’s more of the same on the street.

Just 24 hours after the three boys died in the highly publicized Palm Harbor crash, police stopped a stolen Mitsubishi fleeing in St. Petersburg. The owner had left the vehicle unlocked, with a key inside. Officers arrested four suspects: a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and two 12-year-olds.

One of the 12-year-olds was already on probation.

Times staff writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.