He stole a Mercedes-Benz convertible from a 79-year-old man, then showed off in the driver’s seat, mugging for a cell phone video. Shook off police in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, tires kicking up dirt, then jumped a curb and nearly hit a girl on her bicycle. Abandoned the Jeep in an alley, but kept the pistol he’d found in the backseat.
Have you seen T‑Man? He’s in the wind.
Tim Brown is on the hunt.
It’s Jan. 5, late morning. The St. Petersburg detective holds his radio in one hand, the other flat on the steering wheel of his purple Nissan Maxima, as he traces the streets of Childs Park, a St. Pete neighborhood where stolen cars tend to turn up.
Brown, 52, has spent more than a decade going after kid car thieves. He knows they’ll be out of juvenile jail as soon as he catches them. He’s still got to catch them.
The kids call him “Horny Dave.” He’s not sure why they think his name is “Dave,” but he hears “horny” means he’s always in their business, desperate to know what they’re up to. The kids post Horny Dave sightings on Facebook, warning each other, “Narcs out.” At least that’s what Brown hears. He doesn’t bother with that social media stuff.
The very first police report of 2017 had officers looking for an AK-47 with a bayonet attachment, stolen out of the trunk of a car on New Year’s Eve, along with two magazines of ammunition. The victim had called Brown, said people had seen someone named “T‑Man” shooting off the assault rifle at the playground down the block. Had Brown heard of him?
Tyron Antez McKinnon. Brown has heard too much about him. Every kid he hauls in is talking about T‑Man: the wheels he’s on, the speeds he’s reaching, the guns he’s packing.
Maybe 100 pounds, a baby face on a 4-foot-11 frame. But in the driver’s seat of the cars he steals, Tyron is the most dangerous kid on the streets.
“The scary thing is,” the detective says, “if he’s in a car right now, and he still has the gun, he wouldn’t have the smarts not to pull the trigger on somebody.”
They call him T‑Man, but he is a boy. He used to cry every time police got him in the back of the cruiser.
At 3 years old, he was living with a guardian, his mom’s cousin. Dad wasn’t around. Mom had been caught selling marijuana and cocaine.
At 7, he started setting fires and breaking windows around his neighborhood, according to his guardian; she told police he was getting out of control. He said he was sorry for egging a house, that he wouldn’t do it again. By the fourth grade, he was diagnosed with ADHD and sent to a school for students with behavior problems. But he wouldn’t take his medication. Said it tasted bad.
He started running away without bothering to put on his shoes, turning up at Subway or the Dollar Tree or hanging out with older boys at the park.
He was 10 when he was first arrested, charged with stealing a four-wheeler out of a backyard, hiding the ATV under a sheet with Tavion Workman, a 12-year-old boy he knew from school. When police took him away, Tyron’s mom and guardian said they hoped handcuffs would teach him a lesson; he’d been stealing from them, too.
The charge was dropped. But three months later, Tyron and some friends were accused of surrounding a boy on a basketball court and stealing his phone. The victim’s mother confronted Tyron, the boy told authorities: She told him she’d call the police; Tyron said, “They’d have to catch me first.”
“F--- you,” Tyron told a police officer who found him five days later on a bike he claimed he had found on the side of the road. The deputy gave his guardian a phone number for the Department of Children and Families, in case she wanted to send him away.
The trouble started when they lived in Childs Park, his guardian Natascha Williams now tells the Tampa Bay Times. “We moved, but he kept hanging with those other kids,” says Williams. “He’s never hung with kids his age. Some of the older kids only listen to him, even though he’s young.”
He was in the fourth grade when he was seen stalking the skate park near his house, eyeing keys left by the side of the ramp. He had buckteeth, sunspots on his cheeks and Angry Birds on his sweatshirt.
That May, the victim of an apartment burglary recognized Tyron among kids running away from her door a day after the break-in. She suspected he was involved. Thieves had taken two Playstations, an Xbox 360, an Android tablet and a pair of Jordan sneakers from her home. They also made off with a video game: Grand Theft Auto 5.
Times reporters read more than 500 police reports and interviewed more than a dozen car thieves and their families to understand why so many kids in Pinellas County steal cars.
Reporters spoke with the teenagers in their living rooms, on front stoops, in the visitor rooms of jails and in the backseats of police cruisers.
Newspapers don’t always identify kids under 18 who are accused of crimes. The Times chose whom to name using criteria including number of criminal convictions, parental permission and age. The thieves’ own words explained the auto theft epidemic in ways no amount of police reports could.
Erick Wolf, 17, angled his long legs in one cramped cruiser to ease the pressure on his knees. His bangs were in his face as he rattled off the reasons to steal a car.
“It’s a fast way of transportation for kids that can’t get ways of transportation,” he said. “It decreases time instead of having to walk or take bikes.”
Kaleb Frank, 17, was once arrested after using a stolen car to get to the state fair. Relaxing on a couch one night last fall, he talked about the time he pushed a BMW to 160 mph on U.S. 19. The adrenaline made him want to do it again. “Don’t have enough to do in life. Pinellas County is boring,” he said.
“We have to make our own fun.”
They call it car-hopping, walking down the street testing door handles in the dark, then groping around the insides of unlocked cars for a key.
To hear the thieves talk about it, to read about it in the reports, the idea can come about during a late-night sleepover or even a walk to school that’s beginning to feel tedious.
One 15-year-old knows to pick a neighborhood street, the quieter the better, where he won’t be seen. Not a “front street,” he told reporters one night a few months ago, as he stood at his front door with an ankle monitor hanging over mismatched socks. He was caught in a Hyundai Tucson, he said, pronouncing it “Tuck-son.”
Several teens told reporters they go looking for nicer cars in nicer neighborhoods. “People from the southside go to the northside,” said one 16-year-old. On Facebook, kids post that they’re “noya-bound,” heading north. Some will walk or ride bikes; two once called an Uber.
The thieves say they wear gloves or socks on their hands, or in a pinch, fold their fingers into the bottoms of their shirts to avoid leaving fingerprints. Allye Arroyave, 17, laughs as she remembers a friend who wore a sock on one hand, but kept accidentally touching things with his other hand. Of course, he had to keep it all — the GPS and registration, the random papers in the glove compartment.
Sitting on a couch in her grandmother’s home, she mimes stuffing stolen items down the front of her strapless romper. She has little sympathy for the car owner who left a spare key hanging on a lanyard from the rear-view mirror and another in the cupholder. “People are idiots,” she said.
They’ll take things other than keys. One 15-year-old pockets change to buy chips and candy at school. He says he has a moral code: He won’t take glasses. “People need them to see.”
Once the car starts, the joyride begins. Deyon Kaigler was 14 when he stole a Mazda and drove his friends to Clearwater Beach. His friends played in the waves while he sat in the sand, wondering if he’d get caught, he told the Times.
Luis Herring Jr., doing time in prison, remembers what it was like, showing up in style to the parties every weekend.
“Everybody who’s somebody’s out there,” said the 16-year-old. “You gotta be out there. You want to be out there so bad so you’re going to go steal a car to be out there. You’re going to be out there, all out the sunroof, all out the window, smoking your weed, you and four other people in this damn car.”
There are certain things the detective looks for, driving around Childs Park now. A car backed up tight against a fence, in an attempt to hide its plate. Or an unusually nice car parked blocks away from a known thief’s house. Brown lingers at intersections, eyes searching in every direction.
“Out in this area, you see, you don’t even really need to get a tag on a vehicle to know it’s stolen,” he said. “All you need to do is just see it, and it’ll be driving 100 miles an hour. So that’s why you want to make sure you look both ways.”
Tyron has become a pretty good driver, the detective says. But when he first started, he was all wide turns; couldn’t make a tight right without hitting a utility pole.
The first time Brown ever laid eyes on Tyron, he didn’t think much of him.
It was a Monday in May 2014, and Brown got a report about a Hyundai Accent stolen from Lake Vista Park. The victim had been playing three-on-three basketball when one of his opponents slipped away with the keys he had left next to the court.
Brown headed to the Spring Lake Apartments on 31st Street S, which had lately been a popular dumping ground for stolen cars. Brown found the Hyundai, backed in at the corner of the lot.
He parked his unmarked car about 20 yards away and waited.
A few minutes later, he noticed “a very small” child walking through the parking lot. “I did not pay much attention to him at the time and continued to watch the vehicle,” Brown wrote in his report. He remembers thinking, No way. It can’t be this kid.
The Hyundai’s parking lights flashed. Someone had used a key fob to unlock the car. Brown saw it then, in the small child’s hand. The kid clicked it again, climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. He was barely visible over the steering wheel, which he kept jerking back and forth.
Tyron was four days away from his 11th birthday when Brown first arrested him for grand theft auto.
When he’d get put on probation or home detention, Tyron would leave. Police no longer found him at the Subway or Dollar Tree. He now hung out in Childs Park, with a gang of older kids who cruised in stolen cars with key fobs dangling from their necks.
In the summer of 2015, two victims, 11 and 13, told police Tyron and another boy took their phones and earrings while a third boy held a gun on them. Tyron was 12. He pleaded guilty to robbery.
Later that year, a 15-year-old said Tyron gripped a pistol in his waistband as he and his friends relieved the older boy of his iPhone and jewelry at a Halloween party. Tyron wasn’t charged.
Two weeks later he was arrested, charged with stealing a brand-new Hyundai Elantra from a woman who left it running while picking up her child’s shoes from a cousin’s house. Brown found Tyron three days later, the key fob in his pocket. The Hyundai turned up full of items that weren’t in it when it was stolen — a flat-screen television, a bowling ball.
When Tyron was arrested, his guardian would visit him in the Juvenile Detention Center, pleading with him to stop. “You’ll end up in jail for the rest of your days, or dead,” Williams said she would tell Tyron. “You might steal the wrong car. Someone might shoot you.”
But he kept doing it. And in December 2015, he became notorious.
It was a Friday, one of those perfect, 70-something-degree days. Tyron rode up on a bicycle to a gas station at 49th Street and 22nd Avenue S.
Raymond Raftery, 89, was just about to pull out of the station, having filled up his Toyota RAV4, when he spotted a little boy waving to him from a bicycle.
“You have a low tire!” Tyron shouted.
Raftery says he had no reason not to trust the child. He got out of his car and looked. Tyron told him that the tire was on the other side.
Raftery walked, slowly, to the other side of the Toyota.
Tyron’s bicycle clattered to the pavement. He jumped into the car and peeled off, all in one seamless move that still bewilders Raftery. The man is 6-foot-1. How did T‑Man even reach his pedals without adjusting the seat?
Raftery, now 91, says he has been praying for Tyron since. “I figure the kid’s probably got two strikes against him growing up. … And maybe, who knows, you can always hope that there’s a spark of decency in him and it comes out and he changes his ways and becomes a productive citizen. The odds are probably against it, but you can pray and hope.”
Tyron wrecked and ditched the RAV4. But surveillance video from the Exxon wound up on the local news, making Tyron a hero among car thieves. The story was plastered on Facebook pages. Girls posted on his wall, calling him a “bad ass” and “my baby” and “Baby Boy.”
He showed off for friends and fans in live Facebook videos, almost all selfies, the camera turned on him — smoking blunts, jangling key fobs, rapping and waving a gun with older boys.
One night, when police showed up outside a neighbor’s house, Tyron broadcast himself talking trash about the cops. “These crackas out here so rookie,” he said.
“They’re not getting no wheels, no, none of that. …”
“What is y’all doing with y’all’s life?”
Brown’s wife thinks he’s getting too old for this job. He comes home with bruises from jumping fences and running after teenagers. He goes to fitness classes with her to keep in shape. Plays third-base in an over-50 softball league. His wife calls it “old man softball.”
He’s a cop’s cop, born into a family of cops, an easy cliché.
He knows if he just keeps running after the kids, keeps them in his sight, back-up will come. He lives for those gotcha moments.
He’d love to have one today, as he drives by the Frazier house, one, two, three times.
He’s heard Tyron is staying there, crashing with Marcese, a car thief three weeks away from his 16th birthday with an older brother in lockup, charged with attempted murder.
No sign of him.
A sharp turn, and Brown’s Maxima is in the alley behind Third Avenue S. He parks his car and raps on the backdoor of a mustard-colored house with a broken trampoline in the yard. A woman in pajama pants walks outside — Tamika Smith, Tyron’s mother. She asks Brown how he’s been, and asks him to please find her son. Tyron doesn’t live with her, but she has heard that he’s riding in cars, that he’s got a gun. She hasn’t seen him in a week and worries he’s going to get hurt.
Brown thinks so, too. He leaves the house and drives past the little playground where Tyron was spotted shooting off the AK-47. “That’s a kid that’s either going to get killed or kill someone,” he says. “He’s going to die.”
Brown has spent all day tracing the gridded streets of Childs Park, coughing the remnants of a bad head-cold into his fist as he steers. He wants to catch T‑Man, get him off the streets before a gun goes off.
But it’s getting late, and he can’t find him.
At night, more officers sweep the streets looking for juvenile auto thieves across Pinellas County. Some are with a program called Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement, or HOME, run by the sheriff’s office with the St. Petersburg, Largo, Pinellas Park and Clearwater police departments. In teams of two, 11 officers knock on the doors of kids who have committed five or more felonies within the past year or are court-ordered to be home at night.
The officers track more than 200 kids, visiting them several nights a week, sometimes talking on the front porch or peering in their rooms while they sleep.
They say they need the program because probation officers with the Department of Juvenile Justice, stretched too thin, didn’t come around enough.
The program is expensive — adding up to more than $1 million. “That’s a quarter-million dollar investment for my city onto that program,” said Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter. “I’m not a social service provider. I can’t educate every kid. I can’t fix every family.”
One night in September, two deputies with the HOME team knocked on a door of a house in northeast St. Petersburg. Tyron’s old friend, Tavion Workman, lived here. His older brother Andre, ankle-monitored, came out on the porch with their mother.
As one deputy chatted with the Workmans, the other pulled out his flashlight, noticing something else. An SUV was parked in the yard, backed up against a fence, seat pushed all the way down, as if someone had wanted to drive undetected.
Back in his cruiser, the deputy entered the tag number into his laptop. A friendly female voice chirped, “This vehicle has been reported stolen.”
He radioed the Violent Crimes Task Force — another special unit, made up of 14 other deputies hailing from three jurisdictions.
Soon a dozen deputies were standing on the Workman lawn. Tavion, now 14, came outside. Seventeen-year-old Andre was ranting: “You see what’s on my ankle! I don’t go nowhere!” Tavion was adamant: “I don’t know nothing about that junk.” His mother pointed out the time; it was after midnight, and they needed to be up in a few hours for school. Police called a towing company.
The next week, they arrested Tavion. He had confessed to taking the car from a nail salon, hiding the keys in a shoebox in his bedroom.
Police are trying everything they can to catch these kids: DNA-testing airbags, scrolling Facebook pages, flying a helicopter to follow fleeing cars; its camera is so powerful, it can tell if a suspect’s shoelaces are untied from 1,000 feet in the air.
But the kids have their own tactics to win this game of cat and mouse.
Luis, the car thief in prison, says some unmarked cars are easy to spot, like the standard Ford Crown Victoria. “They’re like, dark brown, burgundy. … We call them hard tops,” Luis says.
“You don’t make it obvious that you see them. Because if you look at them, that’s how they know you know.”
Out on the street, kids try to keep another vehicle between their stolen rides and a hard top so an officer can’t pull up and read their license plate. The cops do the same when they see a stolen car, using a “cover car” as a buffer to avoid detection.
The kids watch to see if police are following them or just happen to be on the same street, Luis says. Did the unmarked car turn with them? When it first passed, did the officer tap the brakes quickly, or hit the blinker, or make a U-Turn? If so...
“I’m going to smash away,” says Luis. “Do reckless, crazy stuff to get away.”
“You gotta lose them,” says Jacer Brown, who recently turned 18. He would swerve, “go on the wrong side of the street.” He wasn’t worried about hurting people, he says, sitting in county jail on charges of grand theft auto and leaving the scene of a crash. “You’re trying not to get caught. … You don’t stop.”
The major Pinellas law enforcement agencies generally don’t allow officers to chase stolen cars unless the people inside have committed a violent felony. So they’ve had to get creative. Ten St. Petersburg police vehicles were equipped with StarChase, a tracking device the size of a Coke can covered in super glue. If officers could get close enough to the back of the car, they’d shoot the gadget at the bumper.
In December 2015, after a kid strolled into a CrossFit and stole a woman’s car keys, police used StarChase to track the Nissan Altima. They arrested two 13-year-olds — one with four sets of keys on him, and another who asked, “Did y’all shoot something at the car?”
But the kids got smart about StarChase. Hearing it hit the bumper was enough reason to ditch the car and take off running. Three kids skidded to a stop to pry the cylinder from their stolen Ford F-150, ditching it on the ground. In February, police said they were discontinuing StarChase, replacing it with a less obvious tracker.
Police reports show that the thieves are brazen enough to believe they can outsmart K-9 dogs.
One 17-year-old advised his friends to punch the dogs in the mouth to get away, as though they were sharks.
A 15-year-old bragged that he could outrun police dogs and beat any officer in a one-on-one fight. He is 5 foot 6 and 110 pounds.
And two other kids, 16-year-olds wanted for stealing a car out of a garage in northeast St. Petersburg, spread pepper in an alleyway to attempt to throw off the dogs.
It worked. The dogs lost the track.
But neighbors had spotted them, and even though the boys followed every trick in the book to throw off the police — they had even changed clothes to avoid detection — they were soon in handcuffs, being taken away.
It’s Jan. 10. Brown is filling in on a night shift, sitting at his desk in a room he shares with five other detectives. Behind him is a wall sparsely pasted-up with mugshots. The faces of three girls who drowned last year, running their stolen car into a pond as they tried to lose deputies, are among them.
He used to tack up the photos of all the kid car thieves he was looking for, Brown says. It got too time-consuming. There were too many kids, all at the same time. He couldn’t keep up.
Around 8 p.m., his phone rings. Tyron’s been caught.
They found him riding on the handlebars of someone else’s bicycle, ambling through the heart of Childs Park around what should have been supper time. They had heard he was staying around here, police units set up, waiting.
An officer had recognized him immediately, lit up the street in red and blue, played his siren.
Tyron looked right at him, then jumped off the handlebars and tore down the street.
They caught him in the front yard of a stucco house with a basketball hoop and recited his Miranda Rights. It was at least his sixth arrest for grand theft auto. He had long ago stopped crying, in the back of the cruiser. He told them to just take him to jail.
But before they brought him to the Juvenile Assessment Center, the deputies drove him to the police station. A detective wanted to speak with him.
Brown walks downstairs now, where the cruiser is waiting. About goddamn time, the detective thinks.
He feels relief, but little else. Some other kid will rise to the top of the list. And that AK-47 is still out there. Maybe in the hands of the next T‑Man.
Brown leans into the car. Tyron’s skinny arms are handcuffed in the backseat. Just take me to jail, the kid keeps saying. The detective tries to ask him about the Mercedes-Benz he stole off Central Avenue. Tries to get him talking about the Jeep Cherokee, the Volkswagen Jetta, the missing gun.
He won’t answer any of his questions. But, as Brown will later remember, the kid has a question of his own. T‑Man almost smiles.
What’s Horny Dave doing here? he asks. He doesn’t work nights.
TIM BROWN IS ON THE HUNT.
It’s Feb. 10. A freshly printed hot sheet sits in the lap of his jeans with his radio, the voice of his partner punctuating what has been a busy morning. They caught three teens rifling through a car at Maximo Park, and had to throw spikes on the highway to pop the tires of the getaway car. The kids bailed, then jumped off I-275, 20 feet to the ground.
Now Brown spots a Land Rover in a vacant lot in the Campbell Park neighborhood, south of downtown. It was stolen last night from Coquina Key. He pulls off across the street and waits to see if a thief comes to claim it.
It can’t be T‑Man. He was sent away to a low-security residential program after pleading guilty to grand theft auto. He won’t change his ways, the detective thinks. But Brown is glad to have him off the streets for six to nine months.
He’ll be back in town right around the time Brown retires.
Thirty years with the department this October, and then Brown’s done. He can picture it now — fishing from his kayak, sipping Captain and colas in Key West. The thieves will throw a party in his name, he laughs. “Horny Dave gone.”
Brown leaves his post by the stolen Land Rover, driving off to look for other cars. He passes a boy on his bicycle. He thinks it might be Antwan Summers, a 14-year-old he has arrested for grand theft auto before.
Antwan went to a program, and got out in October. By December, he was back in a stolen car. I wonder if he’ll run away, the detective thinks. Brown makes a U-turn and rolls down his window.
“Hey, I need to talk to you, Antwan,” he says.
“I need to talk to you.”
“Pull over here. You’re not in trouble.”
Antwan loops like he’s going to stop, then jumps off the bike, pushes it to the ground in front of the detective’s car and runs away.
Brown looks down. He laughs. Antwan dropped something: The key fob to the Land Rover.
A dozen officers descend, a K-9 prowling the yards. Neighbors come out of their houses to watch. Someone on the radio spots Antwan crossing 15th Avenue S.
“Go, go, get him,” Brown says out loud to himself. “Woo! Here we go.”
But they look all day for Antwan, and they can’t find him.
HE STOLE A JAGUAR FROM A BEACH DRIVE CONDO; cops found it with a shattered windshield and a bullet hole. Pinched an SUV from a 65-year-old woman who had just returned from church, then was caught in a Hyundai stolen from a 70-year-old man delivering Meals on Wheels. Refused to get out of an Acura MDX when an officer pointed a gun at his head, then stepped on the gas and almost ran him over.
Have you seen Antwan? He’s in the wind.
Through public records requests of 10 law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County, the Tampa Bay Times obtained a report for every juvenile arrest for grand theft auto from January 2015 through June 2016, and used the reports to create the most comprehensive database to date of this crime in the county.
Reporters recorded every suspect, every victim and every car. They analyzed details of each case, from how a car was stolen, to whether it was involved in a crash or a police pursuit, to whether the suspects stole it from someone they knew or a stranger.
They created a spreadsheet of every person involved in a car theft, including passengers of the juveniles arrested. They used a specialized computer program to map connections between the people, after first consulting with experts in social network analysis. The Times gave the data to Andrew Fox, a California State University professor who specializes in juvenile crime and social network analysis, who independently analyzed it.
Reporters compiled arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system to compare the raw number of arrests in Pinellas County to other places in Florida and across the country. The Times was unable to obtain data from Cook County, Ill.
Reporters spent eight months interviewing those closest to Pinellas County’s car theft epidemic, including teenage car thieves, their families and their victims. They spent days in juvenile court and nights in police cars on ride-alongs. They interviewed police chiefs, judges, state leaders and experts on juvenile crime.
As a matter of practice, the Times takes great care in deciding whether to publish the name of a juvenile charged with a crime. In a number of cases in this series the Times has published the names of even young juveniles. In making those judgments, the newspaper considered the child’s age, number of convictions, severity of crimes and whether a parent or guardian was present for an interview.