ST. PETERSBURG — Detective Tim Brown saw the boys, 15 to 16 years old, huddled by the Citgo parking lot on Wednesday.
He waited near the gas station on 22nd Avenue S, where four cars have been stolen in the past month.
About 3 p.m., a man parked his 2004 Honda Accord and ran inside, leaving the keys in the ignition.
"And one of the kids just hopped in the car and took off," Brown said. "I asked him why when we caught him (Thursday) morning. He said, 'I needed a ride to the north side.' "
The scene is alarmingly common, Brown said: Teens loiter outside gas stations, convenience stores and strip malls, waiting for someone in a hurry to leave their unattended car running.
"They go on joy rides," Brown said. "They show the cars off to their friends."
Of the 551 cars stolen in St. Petersburg so far this year, 460 of them — 83.5 percent — had keys either in the ignition or elsewhere in the vehicle, police said.
Authorities are raising awareness about the crimes of opportunity through social media and by placing warning posters in "hot spots" where multiple cars have been stolen. They're also reminding people that leaving keys in a vacant car that is running is against Florida law and can result in a $116 fine.
"Always take your keys with you," Brown said. "It's that simple."
Citgo manager Mina Killeny, who has worked at the gas station at 3400 22nd Ave S for two years, said he worries car thieves will hurt business.
"People are scared to come here when they hear about people stealing cars at night, in broad daylight, all the time," Killeny said, adding it had happened twice there in one day. "The problem needs to be solved quickly. Very quickly."
Yvonne Thompson, who owns Jamaican restaurant Taste of the Islands in the nearby Lakeview Shopping Center, said that about a month ago, a boy riding a bike stole one of her customer's cars.
"She came in to buy two meat pies and left her dog in the car," Thompson said. "That boy jumped in her car, sped off and left her the bike."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8321.