St. Petersburg police unit tracks young criminals

ST. PETERSBURG — They skipped school and stole cars, broke into houses and got high, racking up arrest after arrest.

They spent a few days locked up, then they were back on the streets. Judges meted out curfews and home detentions.

Some got the message.

The rest were put on the list.

There are 143 names on it now, young serial criminals that St. Petersburg police believe merit special attention. The biggest offenders, they say, commit the most crimes.

Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey was on this list, long before the 16-year-old was accused of gunning down a police officer on a dark downtown street.

Every day a special police unit aggressively monitors these juveniles — at home, at school, even in court. The teens know they're being watched. Every misstep, every missed curfew, will put them back in handcuffs. If they try to disappear, the unit will find them.

The message for those on the list is simple: Get it together. Or else.

"You hope what you're doing reaches these kids," said Detective Tom Loveland, "but you know you won't reach them all.

"Who's the next Nick Lindsey? That's what we're trying to stop."

• • •

By day, COTA detectives hunt for the city's most-wanted adult fugitives.

At night, they check on the troubled teens on the list.

The detectives of COTA — the Career Offender Tracking and Apprehension unit — find those who don't want to be found, regardless of age.

Detectives track down their friends, ferret out their new cell numbers, stake out their haunts, then swoop in and arrest them.

The first list was created in 2009 as a way to tackle soaring car thefts and burglaries.

Police believed juveniles were behind many of them.

They hold an edge over adult criminals. The juvenile system is even more of a revolving door. The longest they can be held is 21 days. Most only stay a few days.

To the police, that means the same thieves get out to commit more crime before their earlier cases are even tried. The state couldn't keep up with them all to make sure they were meeting the conditions of their release.

But St. Petersburg could.

In December, a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer rode with the unit as officers worked the list, making sure teens were going to school, obeying curfew and staying clean. Violations resulted in another arrest. Their aggressive handling of young repeat offenders was hailed when the city's auto thefts plunged.

This month, 51 days after a teenager from the list was accused of killing Officer David S. Crawford, the Times went back out and spent 48 hours with COTA.

Their mission hasn't changed. Neither has the world they inhabit.

• • •

Paul Etcheson is the new man in COTA.

He's a week into the job, a transfer from downtown patrol, where he was Crawford's zone partner before that fateful night. His new partners call him "Etch."

He's in Roser Park to pick up a 16-year-old who lives off 13th Avenue S.

The teen was first arrested on charges of burglary and dealing in stolen property just days shy of his 11th birthday. A lewd and lascivious charge followed at age 12; grand theft at 13; grand theft auto at 14; possession of marijuana at 15; another grand theft auto and leaving the scene of a crash at 16.

Besides the arrest orders — one for driving without a valid license, two for failing to appear in court — a burglary detective wants to question the teen about a recent break-in.

COTA has been looking for him for days. A detective got him on the phone days ago and asked him to turn himself in. The teen said he would meet him in 15 minutes. Then he called and said he lost his shoe. He never showed.

Etcheson knocks on the screen door and loudly calls: "Police."

Eventually a young man answers the door. Is the teen home? The man says he'll check and walks back inside.

Etcheson goes on alert. If the teen is home, the officer worries, he might try to run out the back. The officer doesn't have any backup to cover the rear.

Then the teen walks outside. He is shirtless and wide-eyed, as if he has just awakened. He is small, barely 5-foot-5.

"How come you weren't home when we came to check on you?" Etcheson asks.

The teen says he was at his girlfriend's. He says he doesn't know why he's in trouble again. He has a court date soon that will take care of everything.

"Sir, sir, sir," he stammers. "I don't even understand what's going on."

Etcheson puts him in the back of his cruiser.

The teen's father, also shirtless, walks outside.

"Don't resist or do anything foolish," the man tells his son. "Don't give them anything else they can pin on you."

His father and stepmother decline to speak to a reporter.

Etcheson's new squad praises his catch. Smaller kids make great burglars, they say. They can slip into homes easily, and slip away from police.

"If we didn't find him tonight," Detective Vinny Trubilla says, "he'd do three more burglaries tomorrow."

• • •

It's a week after Etcheson took in the 16-year-old teenager.

He is in court, dressed in red coveralls, but COTA is still watching.

Detective Steve Sequeira attends as many of these hearings as he can.

He goes to brief the judges, lawyers and probation officers on the specifics of each case. The unit doesn't want a teen released early because the court doesn't know about his latest violation.

Each arrest pushes the worst offenders closer to being sent to a secure facility. That's what police want. It's the only way to keep juvenile offenders off the city's streets for a significant amount of time.

The 16-year-old's lawyer brokers a deal: The teen will spend up to nine months in a residential facility.

"That's one kid off the streets," Sequeira says, "one kid we don't have to worry about for nine months."

Last year, reported crimes fell 19 percent. In a city where property crime was once rampant, auto thefts plummeted 45 percent and burglaries dropped 18 percent in 2010.

Assistant Chief David DeKay credited the drop with the mind-set COTA represents: identifying and tracking the worst adult and juvenile criminals and arresting them faster. The rest of the department is adopting that approach, trying to spot and react to patterns.

"There's a lot of ripples going on here," DeKay said. "If it's driving down crime, we're happy about that."

But while crime is down, these days the city is haunted by another statistic. There were 13 murders in 2010, one of the lowest numbers on record.

But in the first three months of this year, there have been eight. Three were police officers.

• • •

Detective Doug Gaddis hears the screaming before he even gets to the door.

He's making an 8 p.m. curfew check at the Disston Heights home. The 14-year-old girl inside was arrested in November on charges of burglary and auto theft. It was her first and, until that morning, only arrest.

She decided not to go to school, violating her probation. Her mother called police and had her arrested.

The teen was back home that same day.

The officer asks the mother and daughter to step into the cool night air to calm their tempers.

The mother complains that her daughter won't listen. She feels exhausted and powerless. She declines to give her name.

Her daughter went off the rails in the eighth grade, she says. Now she's a freshman with a substance abuse problem.

The mother is an accountant in a new job. It's tax season. She's a single parent and works long hours. She can't watch her daughter during the day. She knows her girl is running with the wrong crowd again.

She has no help: "None of my friends want her around their daughters."

A week earlier, the mother watched her daughter testify against her co-defendant. The story she told under oath doesn't match the one she told at home.

"I love her to death," the mother says, "but she's been a really good liar."

Gaddis pulls the girl aside.

"I'm clean, I'm not addicted to getting high," the teen says. "I'm not into anything.

"I know I can do better. I just need a chance."

The mother says she tried to talk to her daughter about Nicholas Lindsey. But her girl doesn't get it.

"She just thinks she made a mistake," the mother says. "She doesn't see herself on the path to self-destruction. She's 14. She's invulnerable."

• • •

The call on the radio sends COTA cars flying in from all over: 16-year-old with a gun.

Detective Liem Mach is fighting midday traffic, hitting every school zone on his way to the scene.

The address is familiar. The young suspect is on the list. But his probation ended a few weeks ago. The curfew checks stopped.

Police, frankly, are stunned by who called them: the boy's father.

"He always seemed to have a problem with us," Mach says. "But it's a good sign that he reached out to us now."

The father is Theodore Escoe. His son is 16, Nicholas Lindsey's age.

Escoe, 50, made the teen watch Officer Crawford's funeral procession. But his son didn't see a connection. He didn't seem to care.

He was first arrested at age 10 on charges of burglary with assault. Last year, at age 15, he was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and throwing a deadly weapon. Police put him on the list.

Escoe thought things were getting better, until this afternoon.

He found out his son was hiding a gun under his mattress, showing it off to his friends.

The father ran across the street to Northeast High to get help from the school resource officer.

Escoe didn't want police to storm his house, so he sent his son to buy sweet tea. When the teen returned, police were waiting.

"I can't allow him to hurt somebody," Escoe says. "He'll have to live with it for the rest of his life."

He thinks his son got the .22-caliber revolver for protection from a rival gang. But he admits his son likes being a "thug" and has no fear of the juvenile justice system.

"He thinks it's just a joke," Escoe says.

The detectives are relieved.

"We got a gun off the streets today," Mach says. "Who knows what he could have done with it?"

The 16-year-old, handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser, won't even look at his dad.

"I didn't call the cops to get you in trouble," Escoe yells to his son through the cage.

If he had stayed out of trouble for another year, the teenager would have gotten off the list.

He's going to be on it for a long time now.

"I know he's mad right now," the father says. "But I know I saved his life."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police unit tracks young criminals 04/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 8:43pm]

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