MADEIRA BEACH — A twice-stolen SUV ended up in the Gulf of Mexico early Wednesday morning after it was driven down a sandy path off Gulf Boulevard, across the beach and into the water just north of the John's Pass channel.
A caller reported the yellow Isuzu Vehicross was in the gulf and setting a course for Mexico around 4:30 a.m., said Cristen Rensel, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
It was still dark when deputies arrived, and fire rescue crews helped the sheriff's dive team search the submerged SUV. They found open windows and an open sunroof, but no one inside.
Crews were able to drag the vehicle far enough out of the water to see its license plate. When they called the registered owner, Julia Robillard, she said the Vehicross was stolen Feb. 12 from her Pinellas Park home. The keys had been left inside. Several hours after she reported it missing, her husband saw it in a parking lot. It was found, but the keys were not.
It was not immediately clear when or how the owner got the car back, but she told deputies that it must have been stolen again overnight. When divers pulled the Vehicross out Wednesday, they found the keys inside. They also found a concrete paver near the accelerator.
As divers worked to secure the SUV against the tide, a Coast Guard helicopter and circling boat woke up Atlanta-native Patrick Bettis and his vacationing family. "It's not something you see very often, especially on vacation at a tourist area on the beach," said Bettis, 38.
Bettis showed up on the beach about 6:30 a.m. He watched as they tried unsuccessfully to tug the underwater Isuzu out of the gulf, a process that left it stuck with its passenger side down. Then, a tow truck arrived but became stuck on the pedestrian entrance to the beach. The tow truck tried to gain access from a spot about a mile north, but got stuck there, too.
David Gray, 60, of Owensboro, Ky., had been watching since 5 a.m, but eventually gave up.
"They're never going to get that thing out," Gray said as he walked off the beach just before 8 a.m.
Eventually, divers were able to turn the Vehicross back onto its wheels using a pickup truck's pull. The truck pulled the SUV back onto dry land about 8:30 a.m., but quickly got stuck in the soft sand as well.
The SUV was finally pulled off the beach. Rensel said investigators will wait for the two-door vehicle to dry out before beginning a forensic investigation.
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.