Monday, February 19, 2018
Public safety

Keys are an increasing target of car thieves, St. Petersburg police say

Floyd Lassiter was 53, and an Army veteran. He died in his front yard last month, shot to death by thieves who had come for his car.

Lassiter's spare keys were taken during a burglary the night before at his St. Petersburg home. The father of three suspected the thieves would return, so he slept in his car to thwart them.

"He felt violated and wanted to protect his family and property," Lassiter's friend and co-worker of 14 years, Bill Simpson, said via email.

What happened to Lassiter is an extreme example of a new kind of car theft that police say is on the rise in St. Petersburg. While burglars mostly target homes for jewelry, electronics and cash, about 18 months ago police noticed they also were stealing car keys.

"Before keys weren't necessarily the go-to thing," acting Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said. "Now they've tended to go up a little bit because they realize they could come back and get the car."

Burglaries are down nearly 18 percent across the city, but an increasing number involve key thefts, said Detective Thomas Tully, who heads the agency's burglary unit. In the past nine months, the city has seen 21 burglaries where keys were taken. In some cases, thieves didn't take anything else, he said, which can lead residents to believe nothing was taken because they don't notice a missing spare set.

In three cases, thieves returned days later for the car, Tully said.

"That's really the only way you can steal these vehicles," said Tully, who thinks more sophisticated vehicle antitheft systems are partly to blame for the trend.

Wayne Schmidt Jr., the general manager at Seminole's Suncoast Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, agreed. "Years ago, you could pop open a car, wire it up, and go," he said.

Schmidt pointed to kill switches that render cars inoperable when the right key isn't present and to more advanced push-button start systems that won't ignite without a key fob as examples.

The dealers themselves aren't immune. Police and dealerships have noticed a spike in the number of keys and cars stolen from their lots, as well.

It has created a complicated problem for law enforcement.

St. Petersburg's auto theft unit deals with stolen cars, while keys taken from a home in a break-in would be investigated as a burglary. Carjackings are handled by another unit because they are considered strong-arm robberies.

Detective Pete Venero works auto thefts on the city's west side.

Last year, 103 auto thefts were reported in that district.

The number is already much higher this year. Of the 193 thefts reported so far, thieves used keys in 153 of them, Venero said. The majority involved unattended cars with the keys inside or spare keys hidden in obvious places.

It's a huge uptick, he said. "They're adjusting as the car companies are adjusting, unfortunately."

It stands to reason, too, then that more brazen thieves will target running cars even if drivers are still in them.

Twenty-one carjackings have been reported in St. Petersburg this year, about the same number as the first half of last year. Authorities are quick to point out that this type of auto theft often happens in the midst of drug transactions or other crimes, skewing numbers.

But in a few recent high-profile cases, random citizens were targeted.

In February, 91-year-old Beverly Landrey was thrown to the ground as she fought off two men who tried to steal her Toyota Venza from a St. Petersburg street.

In April, just weeks before Floyd Lassiter was killed, three teens surprised Charles Clark, 83, outside his Pinellas Park condo. They beat and stabbed him, and went straight for his car keys. They fled, but Clark, too, said he knew they would return. By the next morning, his Ford Fusion had disappeared.

On June 3, Susan Biggs, a 57-year-old licensed practical nurse at Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital, had just finished reading her Bible before heading in to work when two teenagers forced her out of her Chevrolet HHR at gunpoint.

Other Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies said they aren't seeing spikes in burglaries that lead to auto thefts or random carjackings. Many said their most-pressing issue was the thefts of cars left unattended or running or unlocked.

But in St. Petersburg, where detectives have spent weeks developing a case against four teenagers arrested in connection with Lassiter's death, key-focused thieves have prompted a new policy. When they work a residential burglary, officers now ask home­owners if keys were stolen. If so, they offer a wheel-locking device.

Jon Silman, Dan Sullivan, Laura Morel and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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