After three teens died when the stolen car they were riding in plunged into a St. Petersburg pond two weeks ago, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri decried what he called an "epidemic."
That epidemic is juvenile auto theft. It's an old problem, one law enforcement agencies tackle continuously, but one that tends not to draw much public attention — at least not until one of those thefts ends in tragedy.
In the Tampa Bay area, juveniles are the driving force behind most auto thefts, with some areas seeing more than half of stolen cars taken by those younger than 18.
"Kids need to know there are consequences," the sheriff said. "This is a systematic and complex problem."
Local statistics back up Gualtieri's assertion.
In 2015, St. Petersburg police made 461 arrests for auto theft. Of those, 316 — about 68 percent — were juveniles.
Across the bay, the numbers are similar. Tampa police arrested 133 people for motor vehicle theft in 2015. Of those, 62 — or about 46 percent — were juveniles.
That same ratio, though, does not seem to hold statewide. In 2014, the most recent year of statewide data available, about 27 percent of arrests for motor vehicle theft were juveniles, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The officers in charge of tackling this issue in the bay area say that in many cases, thefts happen because car owners make it easy. That was the case with the three teens who drowned in St. Petersburg on March 31.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Dominique Battle, 16; Ashaunti Butler, 15; and Laniya Miller, 15, stole a gold Honda Accord after the driver they were riding with left the teens inside the car in a Walmart parking lot — with the engine running.
Law enforcement also say teens look for vehicles that are left unlocked. And they look for cars where the owners might leave a spare key inside, or in another car.
"There are more people out checking car doors than ever before," said Tampa police Capt. Mike Flynn. "But there are more cars being left unlocked than ever before."
Flynn helped supervise a regional auto theft task force formed in the Tampa Bay area last year after the Pinellas sheriff and the police departments in Tampa and St. Petersburg noticed a sizable uptick in the number of stolen cars. Vehicles would be taken from one place — often from St. Petersburg or Tampa — and driven across a bridge into the other county.
The task force brought together the three agencies to go after such thieves. They convened nightly, looking for cars that had recently been reported stolen in places where the cars tend to turn up.
"A lot of it is just kids showing off, driving around and showing they have cars," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Brian Taylor, who worked on the task force. "Definitely not all, but a large percentage are going to be kids doing crimes of opportunity."
In some cases, cars are stolen for the purpose of committing more crimes.
Gualtieri used the example of four teens who stole a car from the Postcard Inn in St. Pete Beach on March 26, days before the three girls drowned. The four teens took the car from the beach hotel and used it to rob a gas station in St. Petersburg. The task force tracked the car and later arrested the teens.
The approach might be more effective at reducing auto thefts than what agencies have tried in the past. Historically, the issue of car thefts has intertwined with the issue of police pursuits, a touchy subject among Tampa Bay area law enforcement — and one that is debated anew after tragedy.
In 1992, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that police departments are liable for their pursuits. That decision stemmed from an infamous 1984 high-speed police chase in Pinellas that ended when a mentally ill car thief struck and killed two sisters from Palm Harbor.
The ensuing decade saw cars being stolen left and right in Tampa. To combat the problem, Tampa police permitted pursuits of stolen vehicles. Auto thefts went down, but crashes, some of them fatal, happened more often.
In the years since, police departments have tightened their pursuit policies. In Tampa, the policy is not to pursue unless an officer believes the driver has committed a "forcible felony." That can include the crime of burglary of a conveyance. In St. Petersburg, the threshold is a "violent felony."
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office does not pursue stolen vehicles. Deputies were tailing the stolen Accord before it plunged into the pond but did not chase the vehicle after the teen girls ignored deputies' attempt to pull them over.
Law enforcement emphasize that they will avoid pursuing stolen vehicles unless the situation meets specific criteria.
When members of the auto theft task force spotted stolen vehicles, they followed — usually by helicopter — until the drivers stopped. Then they attempted to arrest the occupants.
Each time the task force convened, Flynn said, each of the three agencies saw a significant decline in the frequency of auto thefts in their territories.
"Once the word gets out," he said, "they know the likelihood of getting caught and arrested increases significantly."
Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writers Laura C. Morel and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.