Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Public safety

Teens in stolen car crash had 126 arrests; murder charges possible (w/video)

The last thing Keondrae Brown remembers before he blacked out is lying in shattered glass on Tampa Road, next to the burning wreckage of a stolen car, lucky to be alive after a high-speed crash that killed his brother and two of his friends.

TIMELINE:Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)

Now Keondrae and two other boys in a second stolen car could face murder charges in the deaths of Keontae Brown, 16; Jimmie Goshey, 14; and Dejarae Thomas, 16.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri suggested the more serious charges against the surviving teens at a news conference Monday, a day after the Palm Harbor crash once again highlighted Pinellas' deadly plague of juvenile car thefts.

THE CHASE: Cops, teen car thieves and a dangerous game

"We have a serious problem and something else needs to happen," he said.

Frustrated with the persistent high-speed joyrides and the lack of consequences, Gualtieri shoved his finger into the podium, calling the juvenile system broken. He pointed to the teens' extensive criminal records — 126 arrests among them, including several for auto theft — as proof that the juvenile system rarely holds a kid for long. No consequences equals no fear of doing it again, he said.

TROUBLED HISTORIES: See all 126 arrests the teens compiled

The sheriff said Monday that the stolen Ford Explorer reached speeds of 120 to 140 mph. The Explorer blew through a red light at 100 mph before hitting another car, smashing several parked cars, launching into the air and bouncing off a pole, all before crashing back onto the road and bursting into flames, the sheriff said.

Keondrae, 14, was ejected from the back seat, through the windshield and onto the pavement. His brother was also thrown from the car. The two other boys who died were trapped inside.

On Monday, Keondrae was released from the hospital and taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center, accused of grand theft auto. The man driving the car they hit was released from the hospital after receiving treatment for internal bleeding, a shattered collarbone and a broken foot.

EDITORIAL: Coming together to reduce car thefts

Deyon Kaigler and Kamal Campbell, who were in the Chrysler Sebring that did not crash, appeared for the first time in court Monday on charges of auto theft and resisting arrest. Campbell, 18, was held on $25,000 bail. Deyon, 16, was ordered held at the Juvenile Detention Center for the maximum 21 days.

Ultimately, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office will determine what charges the teens face.

In the courtroom, Tina Webber, whose teenage sons were friends with the boys involved in Sunday's crash, hugged Deyon's mother and shook her head. Just last week, she said, she talked to Deyon and Keontae on her front porch.

"I looked them right in the eye and said, 'Keep stealing cars, and you're going to wind up dead or in prison,' " Webber said. "These kids are going to keep dying, whether they're dying in a car or in prison. Because they're young and dumb and don't know nothing."

• • •

HOT WHEELS: How kids are driving Pinellas County's car theft epidemic.

It started Thursday, shortly after midnight, when thieves broke into an auto dealership on Missouri Avenue in Clearwater.

Keondrae told investigators that Deyon stole both the Explorer and the Sebring from Platinum Plus Auto Sales.

"It's pretty quiet out here," said Patrick Denney, 52, who owns Missouri Auto Body and Collision next to the dealership. "It was sure a surprise to us that it happened."

Neither car was spotted until about 1 a.m. Sunday, when a deputy in Dunedin recognized the Explorer's license plate from a recent "hot sheet" listing of stolen vehicles.

Keontae, Keondrae, Dejarae and Jimmie were in the Explorer. With Keontae at the wheel, they fled. The deputy did not pursue, Gualtieri said. The boys picked up Deyon about 2 a.m. at his house in Clearwater, the sheriff said. He had the keys to the Sebring and wanted to drive. Deyon told deputies that Dejarae then held a cocked gun to his head and told him to get in the Explorer instead.

Deyon apparently talked Dejarae down, Gualtieri said, and drove the Sebring to their next stop: Kamal's house. The boys smoked marijuana before setting off to car-hop, driving through subdivisions in Safety Harbor and Oldsmar, getting out to test car door handles and steal phones and money.

The teens made their way to the East Lake Woodlands, where they heard a Sheriff's Office helicopter overhead. By then, they had committed several burglaries, according to deputies.

A deputy later spotted them on Tampa Road playing a "cat and mouse" game, Gualtieri said, alternately slowing down and passing each other in the stolen cars. Investigators said the two cars were not speeding, and the deputy did not try to stop them, instead following behind while waiting for help.

The Explorer moved ahead on Tampa Road at more than 120 mph. They had turned off all the lights on the SUV.

Ricky Melendez Jr. was driving north on U.S. 19 in his Toyota Camry through a green light when the Explorer smacked into him.

"I remember I was spinning," Melendez said.

The Explorer hit five parked cars at an auto dealership on the side of the road. It flipped through the air, smashing into a billboard pole, 10 feet up, before spiraling into more cars and tumbling down Tampa Road.

A deputy pulled up and sprayed the hood of the Explorer with a fire extinguisher.

Deyon and Kamal told investigators they saw the vehicle burst into flames. Deyon turned left through the red light onto U.S. 19, deputies said, and drove through Dunedin and into Clearwater.

The sheriff's helicopter followed overhead until the boys stopped at Sunset Point and Keene roads, ditching the Sebring and dashing through yards. Deputies quickly caught up to them. Deyon later told his mother they asked him to go back to identify his friends' bodies. He said he couldn't and begged them to let him stay away.

• • •

Among them, the six teens had already gone to the Juvenile Detention Center 43 times, the sheriff said.

"The problem is that these kids could have cared less about their crimes," the sheriff said. "They had no concern whatsoever about the juvenile justice system."

Keondrae was released from the detention center on Aug. 2, Keontae was last locked up July 31, Dejarae had been there July 28, and Deyon got out on July 12. Jimmie had not been locked up since May, the sheriff said.

Others who knew the boys said they had good hearts but fell in with the wrong crowds.

Pinellas School Board member Eileen Long said she knew Dejarae.

"He did have a lot of good qualities," she said. "He was smart but did not want to apply himself."

The teen hugged her when she told him he needed to change his life and stop hanging out with the wrong people.

"If you don't stop, you're not going to make it to 18," Long said she told him. "You've got to focus on school."

Deyon's mom, Demetria Coley, said her son had stayed out of trouble for most of a year before being caught in a stolen car in early July. She said she did not believe Deyon was responsible for stealing the cars from the dealership. "Every time something goes down they blame Deyon because he's the weakest one," Coley said. "Every time, every time, because they can bully him, because he wants to fit in with them."

• • •

It could prove difficult for authorities to bring murder charges against the surviving teens, local attorneys told the Tampa Bay Times.

A person can be charged with what is often called "felony murder" if someone is killed during the commission of, or attempt to commit, a specified felony crime, according to Florida statute. One of those crimes is burglary.

Gualtieri said the three surviving teens admitted to several vehicle break-ins around East Lake Woodlands. They then fled, he said, "in one continuous, uninterrupted sequence" before the crash. Investigators recovered several stolen cell phones scattered around the charred Explorer and said some of the teens were wearing gloves that are typically used to avoid leaving fingerprints

While he said he understood the argument the Sheriff's Office could make for a felony murder case, Clearwater lawyer Bjorn Brunvand called bringing these charges against the survivors "a stretch."

"Traditionally, what that felony murder burglary provision relates to is a scenario where someone breaking into a house got confronted and killed someone, or if someone gets killed while attempting to commit a burglary," Brunvand said.

William Loughery, a former Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney, also said pursuing felony murder charges could be challenging.

"I think you have some real issues charging a passenger, a kid who wasn't the driver, with murder because there's the matter of reasonable doubt," Loughery said. Prosecutors would need to show that the burglary and death of the three teens were linked. "Just because you can prove the underlying felony that doesn't mean a jury will automatically say, 'Okay, someone died as a result of these actions,' " he said.

Coley, whose son was driving the Sebring, said she hopes Deyon does not face a murder charge. She said he believes he will be out soon on an ankle monitor, but that the system could have prevented the boys' deaths if it had cracked down earlier.

"They would (all) be alive right now," she said.

Times staff writers Taylor Telford, Colleen Wright and Melissa Gomez contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.

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