ST. PETERSBURG — The detectives of the St. Petersburg Police Department's auto theft unit are adults playing a kid's game.
First they play hide and seek with stolen vehicles. Then it's tag as they investigate, track and arrest those blamed for most thefts: teen boys.
The most prolific know how to boost a car in seconds, then do it again and again with their friends. A few joyriding kids can commit dozens of thefts in days.
"You try to talk to them, you ask them why they do it," said Detective Michele Bland, "and they just think it's fun and games."
It's a game authorities played well in 2008 while cracking down on the city's most prolific young thieves.
The result: Auto thefts plummeted by 37 percent, which were 855 fewer thefts than the previous year.
But now auto thefts are on the way back up. In October they were up 46 percent — that's 603 more thefts — compared to the same period in 2008.
In St. Petersburg, grand theft auto is a game that never ends.
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The year 2006 was the city's worst year for auto thefts in nearly four decades. The numbers offer a snapshot of the problem:
There were 2,761 vehicles reported stolen that year. But only 272 auto theft arrests were made.
Juveniles made up 52 percent of those arrests — and 125 of the 142 were boys. It was worse in 2007, when juveniles made up 61 percent (193 out of 317) of auto theft arrests. Boys accounted for 158 of those arrests.
In St. Petersburg, police believe two things: Juvenile thieves steal more cars than adults, and they do it to go joyriding.
That's based on the quick recovery of most stolen vehicles. In 2006, 91 percent of stolen vehicles were recovered, half within 48 hours. Ninety percent were found in the city.
Often, when one vehicle is found, another is reported stolen nearby. The thieves decided it was time for a change.
"You may have 100 cars stolen," said St. Petersburg police Detective Tim Brown, "but there may be only six or seven kids responsible for those."
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For the most hardened teen thieves, auto theft really is a game that doesn't carry enough risk, police say.
For a juvenile, auto theft is a third-degree felony, which means the minor can be released within a day.
Judges can sentence teens to home commitment, strict probation and curfews. They also can order them to attend school and other programs.
But police said that's not enough. The teens keep on offending, even between court dates.
And the Juvenile Detention Center isn't a jail or prison. It can't hold juveniles indefinitely. The limit is 21 days, but that's usually reserved for more violent charges.
"When we talk to kids it's a joke, they laugh," Brown said. "A lot of time it's 'Take me to JDC. I'll be out.' "
After enough arrests, judges can send teenagers to residential programs for a year or more.
"Then the tears start flowing because they're going to a program," Brown said.
But what these teens fear most is going into the adult system.
Nonviolent offenders younger than 15 can't be charged as adults without a judge's consent. But by 16, prosecutors can charge the worst offenders as adults.
Florida leads the nation in sending juveniles to the adult system, and Tampa Bay is tops in the state. It's no wonder why, said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
"You can only let them go on the merry-go-round so many times," he said.
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Marquelle Lamont Speights was 11 when he got on the merry-go-round.
That was when he was first arrested for shoplifting, according to state records.
Two years later came his first charge of grand theft auto.
Between 2005 and 2009, records show, he racked up 21 charges of auto theft. He also was arrested four times on charges of burglary, once for robbery and once for aggravated assault.
Some charges were dismissed or reduced. In other cases he was ordered into the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Now 16, he is well known to the city's auto theft detectives.
"Marquelle Speights is responsible for 300 stolen cars at least," said Brown.
In August, the State Attorney's Office charged him as an adult with three counts of grand theft and one count of escape.
He is being held in the county jail in lieu of $12,500 bail. He has pleaded not guilty.
Eventually, Brown said, the kids grow out of it.
"They graduate to bigger and better things," Brown said. "They start doing robberies."
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Stopping car thieves is controversial in St. Petersburg. That's because officers can't chase stolen vehicles.
Department policy lets police engage in a high-speed pursuit only to stop violent offenders, not car thieves or burglars. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the policy saves lives. The unions believe it emboldens criminals.
The auto theft unit relies on eyewitnesses, physical evidence and surveillance teams to catch thieves.
"One time we had a kid drop his progress report out of his pocket," Brown said. "It was a good one, too."
But as good as the police were in catching teen car thieves in 2008, they were even better at keeping them off the streets.
Police and juvenile probation officers targeted the worst of the worst, the top 20 to 30 or so. They checked on them at school and at home, making sure they obeyed the judge's orders and stuck to curfew. And if the kids were missing, the police went looking for them.
Eventually, judges sent the worst offenders to residential programs simultaneously. Auto thefts plummeted.
So why are they rising again? Police theorize that the offenders are back from those programs and are training a new generation of thieves.
"We find the new kids riding around with the hard-core kids," Brown said. "They're like cadets."
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Every game has a loser. In this game, it's the victims.
Bob Woods, 45, came home from work just after midnight Nov. 12 for a quick nap. He was leaving about 5 a.m. when he discovered that his blue 2004 Dodge Ram 3500 was missing from his condo parking lot.
His truck was found three hours later running in someone else's driveway. The driver's side door lock and ignition had been punched. The stereo had been ripped out, the air bags cut away and his tools and iPod stolen.
The truck body was dented, three rims were bent and the suspension may be damaged.
"They beat the hell out of it," Woods said.
It'll cost the insurance company $8,000 to fix. Woods will pay $1,000 out of pocket. But he has only $2,800 left to pay on it.
"Next time they should steal something that has a big payment on it," he said. "Don't steal the one that's just about paid off."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.