Deyon Kaigler wasn’t cold, but he kept shaking.
Hours earlier, his close friend and two other teens died in a fiery stolen car wreck in Palm Harbor. Deyon had been following in a stolen convertible with a second teenager, Kamal Campbell, when they saw smoke and an orange glow through the windshield.
Now they were sitting in a sheriff’s interview room, apparently unaware they were being recorded. Both told similar stories to detectives about a night spent smoking weed and driving around an unfamiliar part of Pinellas County.
Deyon, 16, had said he barely knew Kamal, but when deputies left them alone, they talked like old friends, alternating between grieving their dead buddies and bragging about how they almost got away.
"I just can’t even believe that s---. It’s not even hitting me right now," Deyon said.
He told Kamal at first he wasn’t sure why deputies were rougher than usual when they arrested him, pressing their knees into his neck.
"Now I understand," he said. "We sitting there thinking: It’s a game, man. We didn’t even know that they f------ ... they crashed and died."
Deyon said he was tired and didn’t want to go out that night, but his friends came over, so he went anyway.
"I don’t want to get in no trouble," he later told detectives, according to recently released transcripts from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. "We just 16. I just, all I do, all I want to do is just drive. That’s all."
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THREE BOYS DIE IN STOLEN VEHICLE
In Pinellas, auto thieves rarely just drive. They go "car-hopping" or "hitting," rolling down quiet residential streets, checking door handles and breaking into unlocked vehicles. It’s how they steal more cars, part of an epidemic that has bedeviled the county and left eight teens dead in just the past two years.
Kamal and Deyon told deputies that’s what their group was doing in East Lake Woodlands that night in the Sebring and Explorer, which had been reported stolen from a Clearwater dealership a few nights before. Both said they never actually got out to car-hop themselves; it was all the other boys.
"I told them that I really didn’t really want to ‘cause I have a job. I don’t really need to go hitting; I can buy the stuff I want," said Deyon, who worked at KFC. "So I wasn’t really down with it, but, you know, I was just—"
A detective broke in: "You’re in the moment."
In East Lake that night, the teens heard a helicopter pass overhead. They prepared to leave, but a small part on the underside of the Sebring was damaged.
Deyon recalled the others suggesting that they leave it behind and all hop in the Explorer. Instead, he made makeshift repairs with duct tape. Otherwise, six of them would have been in the SUV.
"I was just like — something just telling me to go back and push that, push it back up and just drive it."
Kamal knew something was wrong when they reached the intersection of Tampa Road and U.S. 19, where the crash occurred.
"I was like, ‘This is not good.’"
A detective asked Deyon if he thought his friends had crashed. He said he didn’t think Keontae Brown, the 16-year-old who was driving the Explorer, would have lost control.
"I didn’t think twice about it," Deyon said. "They always worrying about me crashing, and I’ve never crashed. And I just really thought that he could drive, so I didn’t really, you know—"
Deyon later told Kamal in the interview room that the other boys used to taunt him, saying he "don’t got the wheel," slang for not being a good driver. But that wasn’t true. He bragged about evading police as they fled.
"I was (losing) them left and right," Deyon said. He looked for roads with lots of trees so deputies in the helicopter couldn’t see him. He felt like a character in the video game "Grand Theft Auto." "I feel like I was in GTA or some s---."
Deputies tried to throw spike strips into the road, to pop the Sebring’s tires. Deyon swerved past them.
"Feels like we was in a movie or some s---," Deyon said. "Hit that dead-end, turned around."
Eventually the teens pulled over and ran. They were both caught.
Deyon was wearing a gray sock on his right hand. He said he had used it to wipe away fingerprints as he drove the last few blocks, still convinced he’d get away.
Talking to deputies afterward, Deyon and Kamal tried to figure out what happened to their friends.
"Did my friends really blow up in that car?" Deyon wondered.
Aside from Keontae, Dejarae Thomas, 16, and Jimmie Goshey, 14, had died in the crash. Keontae’s 14-year-old brother, Keondrae, survived.
"Is it true those kids really died?" Kamal asked.
Deyon and Kamal did not fear the juvenile justice system. Under state law, most kids can only be held for 21 days before sentencing. Many teens charged with auto theft only spend a few hours or days in custody. Deyon knew a state scoring system would help determine if he’d be held. In the room with Kamal, he focused on calculations.
Deyon: "How many points is a GTA (grand theft auto)? It’s six, right?"
Kamal: "I don’t even remember, bro. I don’t remember the juvenile."
Deyon: "I’m fixing to ask ‘cause last time I was there it was like six, I think. And then I had another felony, which made that s--- go up to like 12, which makes them capable to hold me for 11 days — I mean for 21."
Kamal, who had recently turned 18, knew he was headed to county jail, too old for the juvenile detention center.
"I’m gonna see a bunch of people in county, a bunch. It’s gonna be like a family reunion. That is not good."
Deyon fretted that this might not be like the times he had been caught before. Kids dying? This was more serious.
"I guess I still got that thought in the back of my head they can charge us with their murders just ‘cause, you know, we stole," he said. "Well, we didn’t really steal. We were just following them."
The teens knew they’d be notorious after the crash.
"They probably got your a-- on the news," Kamal said.
They remembered a year before, when three girls drowned in a stolen car in a St. Petersburg cemetery pond.
"It’s gonna be another one of those stories, you know, with those three girls drowning," Deyon said. "Three boys dying."
He had been in the detention center when the girls died, and all the kids there talked about it. Some people cried.
"There’s gonna be a bunch of people blowing up my phone for once when I get home," Deyon said.
Keontae was his close friend, like a brother.
"At least he went out doing what he liked to do," Deyon said. "That’s all I can say. I’m coming to his funeral. Are you going to theirs? ‘Cause you already know they’re fixing to have some kind of community s--- for them."
Kamal said he would, "to show (his) condolences for the family and everything." After all, he’d want somebody to do that for him. He told Deyon to find him on Facebook and let him know about services.
"I wonder how their mom would feel, bro," Kamal said.
"Their mama care about them so much," Deyon remembered. "Just try — want them to do the right thing, and all of a sudden her oldest die and her youngest in the hospital."
They thought about how, other than Keondrae, they were the only people who could tell detectives what happened.
Deyon: "I mean, I know it’s f----- up, but ... they can’t question them about it."
Kamal: "Yeah, they can’t."
Things weren’t all bad. They both had money, which they sometimes called "cheese." They were alive.
"For a person that’s been on the run all night, I still look good," Deyon said. "I’m fixing to sit in this chair. I still got my cheese, all of it."
He wondered what his mother was thinking back home. Detectives told him they hadn’t been able to reach her.
"She ain’t gonna know how to feel. First she gonna think I was in the car and I died with them."
They talked about stopping.
"You need to get your mind right," Kamal said. "You gotta find a new hustle, bro."
But car theft surrounded them. It remains a popular thing to do for hundreds of kids in Pinellas, the easiest way to reach places they otherwise would never go.
Kamal faces a charge of trespassing in adult court. Deyon, still a juvenile, was pushed into the adult system to face charges including grand theft auto and burglary.
"This s--- is actually a lifestyle for some people, though, some of these jits (kids) out here," Kamal said. "Not really a lifestyle for me. I mean, I don’t want it, but—"
"That’s what I keep telling myself," Deyon said. "I do not want this. But I keep on doing the same s---."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.