Patrick Denney, 52, owns Missouri Auto Body and Collision, the body shop that neighbors the small car dealership Platinum Plus Sales.
Denney said he received a call from police officers Thursday telling him the building that houses the car dealership had been broken into. When he showed up, car keys were strewn across the lot, a window in the back smashed.
None of the cars were missing, so they locked up and went home, he said, and reported the incident as a break-in.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said the break-in call came into Clearwater Police just after midnight. It wasn't until later Thursday morning that the shop owners noticed that a Ford Explorer and a Chrysler Sebbring were gone from the property — the same two cars that later were involved in Sunday's tragic events.
The cars were found, driven by teenage boys who were driving more than 100 mph in Palm Harbor. A fiery crash sent the Ford Explorer flying, killing three of the teens in the car. The boys who died were identified as Jimmie Goshey, 14; Dejarae Thomas, 16; and Keontae Brown, 16.
Police said the shop owners also discovered Thursday that the keys to three other sets of cars were missing — a 1992 Corvette, a 2007 Saturn Sky and a 2002 Lincoln Town Car.
With no surveillance cameras, Denney said police put out a notice on the missing Explorer and Sebring.
Denney, who rents his shop from the owner of Platinum Plus Sales and often works with the dealership, said he worried after the break-in that whoever took the two cars would come back. So he changed the locks on the cars with missing keys and fixed the shattered window.
The cars that were taken had been up for sale and were insured, Denney said. It has been about 10 years since something similar happened, but Denney said there was no reason to worry about crime in the area.
"It was sure a surprise to us that it happened," he said. "It's pretty quiet out here."
On Sunday morning, he received a call about the accident in Palm Harbor.
When he learned that teens had stolen the car, and some of them had died, he couldn't believe it.
"I feel sad for the kids because at that age you're still trying to learn what life is about … and these kids don't have a chance to figure that out," said Denney, who added that he doesn't hold anything against the boys.
Standing in his auto shop Monday morning, he said he knows the break-in wasn't personal. He doesn't know why they chose this lot to steal cars from, but wishes they would have had time for a second chance.
Cars are "replaceable," Denney said, "but you can't replace their lives."