HOT WHEELS
DIRK SHADD | Times

WRONG WAY: At 15, Isaiah Battle was the county’s No. 1 car thief. He had every reason to stop.

At 15, Isaiah Battle was
the county’s No. 1 car thief.
He had every reason to stop.

Isaiah Battle believes in heaven. When he pictures it, everything is gold, everyone sitting on couches among clouds. He is not sure if people in heaven have to share rooms. But if they do, he hopes he can share one with his sister, Dominique.

They shared one on earth, in St. Petersburg, back before she drowned in a stolen car in a cemetery pond. Two beds where they’d lie side by side and joke about their boyfriends, girlfriends, school. Smoke weed and watch whatever was on TV. Tell each other I love you before lights out each night.

The many things they shared also included the backseat of a police cruiser. In the year before his sister died, Isaiah was the kid arrested the most for stealing cars in Pinellas County: a Camry from a driveway, a Porsche from a man pumping gas. He did donuts in a silver minivan and took his hands off the wheel of a Hyundai, holding them above his head like he was on a rollercoaster, laughing.

And she did it, too. When Isaiah was first caught driving a stolen car, Dominique was one of his passengers. She laughed as police handcuffed her, told them it wasn’t a big deal.

Isaiah went to her wake in shackles, sentenced for his own crimes. He cried over his sister’s body. He swore he’d never steal a car again.

But nine months later, Isaiah took an Acura. He sped through the St. Pete night with his headlights switched off, blowing stop signs and running red lights.

Why did he do it? After everything that happened, how could he keep stealing cars?

Isaiah and Dominique shared a world very far from heaven, where fathers disappeared and houses burned down, where men choked their mother and boys shot their friends. That, Isaiah said, is “a normal life.” Strangers’ cars were an escape from it.

“I did everything everybody else did,” said the boy, now 16. “I ain’t never had to do nothing out of the ordinary.”

Stealing cars had taken so much from him. It had taken his sister. But this life was the only one Isaiah knew. Speeding in the wrong direction on St. Pete streets, he would let it take even more still.

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Dominique Battle

Isaiah was 6 weeks old when his father went to prison for selling cocaine. His 20-year-old mother, Yashica Clemmons, was alone with three children under the age of 3: Isaiah, his older brother Jovontae and his 1-year-old sister, Dominique. Yashica worked at Winn-Dixie. She wore clothes and shoes with holes in them so that her children, growing fast, could have new outfits.

Their father got out of prison three years later. He’d come by on weekends, take the kids out to eat or to St. Pete Beach. Isaiah liked to play in the waves, the bigger ones pushing him back to shore. But their father was still selling drugs, and this time, the judge gave him 30 years. He went back to prison the summer after Isaiah turned 6, and the boy remembers thinking, “Okay, I ain’t going to have him, he’s not going to be a part of my life.”

They haven’t talked since.

There was no one else he’d call “dad” among the rotating cast of men who moved into his house and beat up his mom. When he was five, he told police that he watched as one of these boyfriends shoved her into a bunkbed. Dominique was too shy to tell the officers anything.

They broke up three years later, after another baby and a fight over the paternity test, when he followed her to the park where Isaiah was playing football. Yashica had to lock herself and Dominique and the baby in a Kentucky Fried Chicken bathroom until the cops came.

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A family photo of Dominique, Isaiah, Yashica and Jovontae.

Isaiah started getting in fights at recess and P.E., throwing punches when a friend got jumped, sometimes taking on a kid who looked at him the wrong way. He and his sister went to Melrose Elementary, a school on its way to becoming the worst-rated in the state. Fighting made him feel good, alive.

Their mom started dating a new man and they all moved in together, to a 400-square-foot house a couple blocks from Melrose. Neither Yashica nor her boyfriend had a job. The six of them shared two bedrooms and one bathroom. They didn’t pay for electricity, snaking an extension cord in from a neighbor’s house.

They got a puppy, a pitbull that Isaiah loved. He took it on walks and let the dog chase him all around the backyard.

One evening Isaiah’s mother got in a fight with her boyfriend. She was afraid of him. So she packed up the kids — Isaiah was 10, Dominique was 11 — and took them to their grandmother’s house for the night.

That’s when someone burned their house down. Flames completely engulfed the front as the roof collapsed onto the porch. All of Dominique and Isaiah’s things — her clothes, his Nerf gun, their bicycles and backpacks — were lost in the fire.

Police found two gas cans by what used to be the porch. Their mother was sure it was the boyfriend, but a jury acquitted him.

Isaiah spent a week walking the neighborhood, calling for their puppy.

St. Petersburg Police Department
Flames engulfed the family home, destroying many of their possessions.

If nothing else, they had each other: Isaiah and Dominique were like twins. Where he went, she went. They walked their little sister to school together, then stole a little girl’s bike, pink and white, off the rack. Isaiah posted photos of Dominique on Facebook, sticking her tongue out, riding the school bus, sitting on the trunk of a car. Everything made her smile, her brother says. She wanted to be a pharmacist, maybe even a doctor.

One night, their mother’s new boyfriend came home drunk, Isaiah remembers. He said his cell phone charger was missing, and that he was tired of the kids disrespecting him. He shoved Yashica, even though she was holding their 6-month-old baby.

And he went after Dominique.

He hit her in the face and Isaiah shot out of the bedroom, yelling at this man to leave his sister alone. Isaiah was 5-foot-7, 14 and skinny. The man pushed him against the wall, punching him in the stomach three times. The boy ran out of the house. Isaiah remembers the man following him down the street with a knife.

Isaiah and Dominique tried not to be home much, especially after their family moved into the Mosley Motel. Six of them shared one room. The last stop before homelessness, it was a haven for drunks and addicts.

Dominique shoplifted from Walmart. She skipped school and hung out at the Tyrone Square Mall. Isaiah started skipping too, bored in his classes, bubbling in random answers on tests. He walked the neighborhood around Azalea Middle, looking for bicycles to take.

When he found one he’d head to Childs Park, the neighborhood they had lived in when they were younger. Isaiah had hated it as a kid, the drive-bys and the murders and the noise. He would go to the park in the heart of the neighborhood when he was mad, playing hide-and-seek and tag and talking to friends until he felt better.

Now, he went there to play basketball with other boys playing hooky. He met older kids who had dropped out of school.

Police would call some of them gang members, but Isaiah says they took care of him. He took showers at their houses and ate dinners at their tables. If he needed money, they could lend him some.

“We won’t let nobody be broke,” Isaiah explains. “I don’t call it a gang. I just call it a family.”

And everybody in this family stole cars.

Isaiah Battle: "I still wanted to get in cars."

Kids say it’s fun to take cars. They brag to each other about how many they’ve stolen and the sleekest models they’ve sped away in. They say they are bored and that it’s easy, sharing videos of themselves driving at 120 miles per hour. They smile with key fobs, offering rides on Facebook.

But all of the biggest car thieves had something to run from.

Tampa Bay Times reporters analyzed the lives of the most chronic kid car thieves in Pinellas. Using a database they built of every juvenile auto theft arrest in the county, reporters identified 14 kids who were arrested for stealing five or more cars between January 2015 and June 2016. Reporters then read thousands of pages of court documents and police reports from more than a dozen agencies before knocking on doors and writing letters to prisons.

All 14 of these prolific offenders are male. Twelve are black, one is Asian, and one is white. At least nine live in St. Petersburg — though they’re rarely in the same house for long — and the others live in Clearwater, with stops in Largo and Pinellas Park. The majority were evicted at least once; a few families, like Isaiah’s, faced eviction three times.

All 14 of them come from fractured homes. Their parents sued each other over paternity and child support. Some of these kids went to live with guardians. One ran away from a teen shelter.

Eleven experienced domestic violence in their homes, their mothers roughed up by their boyfriends, sometimes in front of them. Six were the subjects of child abuse or neglect cases; investigators came into their homes with questions about black eyes and burn marks.

One of the car thieves was just a baby when his mother tried to run him over with a car. Another was molested while playing football in the neighborhood. He was eight. Yet another future thief stood in the doorframe to the kitchen and watched a man choke his pregnant mother, pressed against the dinner table. The boy hid in a corner, 6 years old and too scared to see what happened next.

They attended some of the worst elementary schools in the state, Melrose and Lakewood, then went on to Azalea and John Hopkins, the most troubled middle schools with the highest truancy rates in Pinellas County.

Nine were listed as “suspects” on police reports by their 14th birthdays; one had just turned eight when neighbors saw him slamming a stolen tricycle into the ground at a nearby park. Most of them were caught for gateway crimes like this before they ever got charged with grand theft auto: They stole bicycles, or they were lookouts first; before the cops ever found them in a car, they found them testing door handles, or with strangers’ key fobs in their pockets.

Nearly all of them were 15 or younger when they were first arrested for stealing cars.

Four of them are now in jail or prison.

For Isaiah, that first grand theft auto charge came at 14 years old. Over the next year, he’d be caught seven more times. He’d become the most arrested kid car thief in Pinellas County, topping the list of 14.

If Dominique hadn’t died in the pond that night, she likely would have been arrested over the Honda Accord. It would have been her fifth grand theft auto arrest, enough for her to make the list, too. That would have been one more thing the brother and sister shared on earth.

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Isaiah poses in a car. Dominique on the school bus.

Isaiah was acting as a lookout one evening around 8 p.m. His friends were “car-hopping” on 10th Avenue N, looking for unlocked cars with keys left inside to steal. Isaiah was supposed to shout if he saw someone coming. But as his friends tried to get into a Saturn, then a Nissan, Isaiah failed to notice a woman sitting on her porch. He heard her yell: Should she call their mothers or the cops? Isaiah ran.

He made it only five blocks before police put him in handcuffs. They took him to the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center. The state rarely holds a child for a “property crime” like grand theft auto, or in this case, vehicle burglary. Within hours, Isaiah says, he was sent back home.

That was easy, he thought.

“You got used to it,” he says. “My friends were doing it, my friends’ friends were doing it.”

So was his sister. Dominique hadn’t been caught yet. But she was running away. She was taking rides from strange men. One of her friends would later tell police that two of these men took them to hotel rooms. They gave the girls ecstasy, and charged other men $50 to have sex with them.

Two months after this report, Dominique was arrested for stealing a Dodge Ram.

A few weeks later, Isaiah put his hand in his T-shirt as he opened the door to a Toyota Camry. It was a trick his friends had taught him, to avoid leaving fingerprints. He climbed into one of the passenger seats, and they all took off through Childs Park.

Soon, police were behind the stolen Camry. Isaiah was arrested at gunpoint, his hands up as he got on the ground. He called the cop “sir,” thinking if he was polite enough, the officer wouldn’t shoot him. “It was scary,” Isaiah says.

Once again, Isaiah was taken to the assessment center.

Once again, he went home. That was easy, he still thought, even though a gun had been trained on him.

Riding around in another stolen car, he told his friend at the wheel, “Let me drive.”

“You don’t know how to drive,” the friend said.

“Yes I do.” But he didn’t, and that’s how Isaiah taught himself to drive.

On March 16, 10 days after his first grand theft auto arrest, police stopped Isaiah driving a stolen Volvo. Dominique was one of his passengers. He says she told him it was a friend’s car. He didn’t know, he says, that she was stealing, too.

But she had taken it from a man who had asked for her number, then agreed to give her a ride to Bartlett Park. When he stopped for gas, she took off in the Volvo.

The cops handcuffed Dominique and Isaiah and put them in the backseat of the same cruiser. She laughed and said she wasn’t scared. She asked the officer to take her to the McDonald’s drive through.

Maybe Isaiah should have been worried for her then. But he was still just a 14-year-old boy. He was more concerned about being locked up for spring break. He didn’t want to miss all the fun.

There’s always a kid at the top of the list. One thief gets caught enough times, gets sent away for a few months to a juvenile program, and another kid takes his spot. He steals everything on four wheels and speeds around town. He’s all over Snapchat, everyone’s posting about him on Facebook and, to them, he becomes the biggest name in stolen cars.

For one long, hot stretch of 2015, that name was Isaiah Battle.

On April 6, 2015, he lifted a Dodge Stratus a few blocks west of the Walmart near Central Avenue, his fingerprints left on the rearview mirror. “Well you have to adjust things to see good when you’re driving,” he told officers.

In the the second week of May, he chased a school bus in a green Hyundai Santa Fe, trying to impress a girl he liked who was on the bus. His friends cheered him on from the backseat. One of his friend’s mothers ratted him out: “She told her son that she didn’t want those ‘cars’ around her home,” the police report noted.

He took another Sante Fe on June 5, this one white. He got tired of walking, he told the police.

They found the car abandoned in an alley, bullet holes in the back. Isaiah's mother said she hadn't seen him in a week. Isaiah said a kid named T-Man was with him when he stole it.

A week later, on June 12, he took a Ford Escape from a church on Central Avenue while the owners were donating items for charity.

His victims were usually able to identify Isaiah, taller and thinner than most of the other kids at it, says Tim McClintick, a St. Petersburg police officer who handcuffed Isaiah several times that summer. One person even noticed the shape of Isaiah’s ears, wide and low-slung on his head.

DIRK SHADD | Times
Officer Tim McClintick arrested Isaiah often.

He was playing football with his friends on July 7 when kids in a stolen Toyota drove by and shot at them. A bullet struck the foot of one of Isaiah’s friends, also 14. “It happened so fast. I turned around, I see guns.” Isaiah took off running. He thought, “I don’t want to get shot.”

Three days later, July 10, a man saw a stolen Toyota Sienna minivan doing donuts in a parking lot. Isaiah took a corner too fast and busted the tires on a curb. Black smoke poured down the street, but he kept driving.

The minivan crashed. He ran.

It was like this all summer long, mostly stealing cars in the dark from victims he rarely saw. But as time wore on, Isaiah became more reckless. On the afternoon of August 30, a week before his 15th birthday, Isaiah dove into a Porsche while a man pumped gas on Central Avenue. His friend at the wheel, they drove off with tires screeching and almost hit a group of children.

He says what happened on Sept. 26, 2015, was an accident.

Isaiah was walking around Childs Park, itching for a car. He spotted a woman cleaning her Chevy Cruze in the driveway, all the doors wide open. Isaiah walked back and forth on the sidewalk, waiting for the woman to go inside for a drink or a bathroom break. Gospel music from the car radio cast across the street.

She walked into the house. He thought she was gone. Isaiah ran to the Chevy. It took him a minute to close all four doors.

And she saw him.

When the woman reached into the Chevy to pull him out, Isaiah put the car in reverse. She was halfway in the driver’s seat. He dragged her down the driveway, into the neighbor’s yard.

Isaiah could hear her screaming. He abandoned the car straight away. He sent a friend to walk by the house, to make sure the woman was okay. Her leg was scraped up and gashed.

The police came for Isaiah the next day. They found him in a friend’s yard in Childs Park, sitting on a toddler’s battery-powered toy car. “A little Hot Wheel,” Isaiah remembers.

This time, they charged him with carjacking.

Gulfport Police Department
Isaiah in an interview room at the Gulfport Police Department.

The judge sentenced him to nine months at a program in Okeechobee County, the farthest he had ever been from home. It was a quiet place, Isaiah says. “Everybody had one thing on their mind: going home.”

Dominique was still stealing cars in St. Petersburg. In November, police caught her driving a Chevy Impala, bailing from the car and running from officers until her friend, a passenger, was hit with a Taser.

Dominique asked the officers how they knew the car was stolen. Then she laughed and said, “Never mind.”

Six weeks later she took a Nissan Murano, hitting parked cars as she tried to get away.

She came to visit Isaiah at Okeechobee with their mother, baby brother and sister in the first week of March. Isaiah told his mom he was going to change.

He was so happy to see Dominique, now 16 to his 15 years. Isaiah missed staying up talking with her in the room they shared, watching TV and laughing.

She caught him up on everything that was going on back home, who was doing what. The kind of nothing, normal stuff that Isaiah wishes he could remember now. It was the last time he saw her alive.

Dominique and two of her friends hitched a ride in a Honda Accord on a Wednesday night three weeks later. The driver says he ran into Walmart to buy a television, and the girls took off in his car. They drove around all night, drinking strawberry-flavored alcohol, eating McDonald’s and texting a friend with plans to meet up.

Police began tailing them around 3:30 a.m. The girls switched off the Honda’s headlights and wove through a cemetery, pitch-black but for the distant glare of the highway. They must not have seen the pond. The car sank to the bottom, all of them trapped inside.

The dive team found Dominique in the driver’s seat, draped over the center console. Her friends were in the backseat. The keys were still in the ignition.

It was late afternoon when another kid from St. Pete came running up to Isaiah in the yard at Okeechobee. The boy had just received his weekly phone call.

“Hey Isaiah,” he said. “Your sister died.”

It was rec time. Isaiah had been playing ball. The clouds had been drumming them with rain all week, but that day was dry.

“For real?” Isaiah asked.

“For real, bro.”

Isaiah doesn’t remember everything that happened next. He knows he was taken to the program therapist’s office. He dialed his mother’s number into the phone, but she didn’t answer. He reached his friends, back in St. Petersburg.

He remembers leaving the room and being back outside. He cried there, out in the yard, alone but for his jailers.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
The Honda Accord after it was retrieved from the pond.
DIRK SHADD | Times
The pond where Dominique died. She is one of eight Pinellas car thieves to die in the last two years. Just last week, three boys in a stolen SUV died in a fiery crash in Palm Harbor.

He went to the wake in shackles. He shuffled up the aisle of the funeral home. She was alone, in a black casket.

Isaiah had never seen a body before.

Dominique was wearing a black dress. Her makeup was done too neatly.

“That’s not my sister,” he kept saying.

It hurt him, how much the girl in the casket did not look like Dominique.

Then he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. She had gotten a new tattoo, in large looping letters on the inside of her left arm:

“Isaiah.”

He cried.

He leaned into the casket.

He kissed his sister on the forehead.

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Dominique had tattooed her brother's name on her arm.
DIRK SHADD | Times
Only a pink flag marks Dominique's gravesite.

When Isaiah was released from Okeechobee five months later, he wanted things to be different. He swore he would never steal another car, not after she had died in one, not after this.

His mother had been too sad to go into the room he’d shared with Dominique. Her clothes were still on her bed, and her blue bookbag was on the nightstand. There were pink sheets on Isaiah’s bed, from a sleepover she’d had with friends. Isaiah lay down on them, but he didn’t sleep at all.

The next day would have been Dominique’s 17th birthday. He bought flowers at Family Dollar, and his mom drove him to the cemetery on First Avenue S. There was no headstone where Dominique was buried; just a little pink nylon flag. Isaiah put the flowers there, with four “Happy birthday!” balloons.

From his sister’s grave, he could see the Shell station where he had stolen that Porsche. He sat down in the dirt and weeds. He prayed that Dominique would watch over him.

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Isaiah visited Dominique's grave on her birthday.

Isaiah decided he would get a job. He’d go to school. Finish school. He was going to stay out of cars.

All of his friends were still stealing them. They were having fun and going places. He hung pictures of Dominique on his bedroom walls. He tried to hang out at home more.

It was hard, with her stuff still everywhere. Their room smelled like perfume.

He applied for a job at Dunkin Donuts. He applied for a job at Publix. He applied for jobs at Winn Dixie, Domino’s and Burger King.

He went back to school, now at Gibbs High, and made B’s and C’s.

He smoked weed. He watched television.

He called to check on his job applications. They told him they’d get back to him.

Before, he’d find cash going through cars. Now he asked his mom for $20, $40. Isaiah hated taking her money.

She was involved with the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a community group that believes police killed Dominique because she was black. Yashica spoke at rallies, saying her daughter was chased into the pond.

He started getting in fights again, at Gibbs, with kids from rival gangs.

None of the jobs got back to him. “Nobody wanted to hire me.”

Months passed. He was kicked out of Gibbs. Went to an alternative school in Pinellas Park.

He would come home and sit in that room full of his sister.

There was so much time to kill and so few ways to do it. His world was only as east and west as his bike could take him.

But when he was in a car, he could drive around the city: “See what’s around.” He could drive around all night. He could listen to music, or he could listen to the quiet. He could cram the car full of friends, or he could be alone. He liked to be alone: “I really like to do everything by myself.”

He didn’t have to think about anything: “You just got to be focused on what you’re doing.” He didn’t have to be home, or at a motel, or at a shelter. It made him feel free, Isaiah says: He could go anywhere.

But all those times Isaiah was in cars, all those times he could go wherever he pleased, all those times he was at the wheel and finally in control, he didn’t. He wasn’t.

Isaiah Battle has never taken a car as far as Tampa. He has never been to Busch Gardens to see if a real rollercoaster feels anything like when he threw his hands above his head in a speeding car.

Isaiah could have gone anywhere, but he drove in circles around Childs Park.

It was a 60-degree morning in January. He was riding his bike from Childs Park to his cousin’s, and he was getting tired. He still had 15 or 20 more blocks to go.

He knew what to look for, scanning the street now. His eyes searched until he saw it: heat coming from the tailpipe of an Acura. Someone had left it running in their driveway to warm up.

He slowed to a stop. He set his bicycle on the pavement. Did he think about her then?

Isaiah says he did. He always thought about Dominique. Every day, all the time.

But he was also thinking about himself. That he knew it was wrong, but he wanted to do it anyway. That what happened to her wouldn’t happen to him.

He crossed the street. His fingers curled around the door handle.

He thought that people who try to do the right thing, even if they mess up once, or even a lot, over and over again, might still get to go to heaven.

He climbed into the car, and he drove away.

The aftermath

Isaiah was caught the same day he stole the Acura and charged with grand theft auto, fleeing and eluding, and driving without a license. Prosecutors charged Isaiah as an adult, deciding the juvenile system and the death of his sister hadn’t been enough of a deterrent. He is expected to be sentenced to up to six years in prison at an Aug. 28 hearing.

DIRK SHADD | Times
Isaiah is sworn into court during a hearing in June.
DIRK SHADD | Times
Yashica sits in the back of the courtroom.

Contributors

Times staffers Caryn Baird, Connie Humburg, Eve Edelheit, Claire McNeill, Dirk Shadd and Alex Zayas contributed reporting.

About the reporting

Tampa Bay Times reporters requested police reports for every juvenile grand theft auto arrest in Pinellas County from January 2015 through June 2016, reading hundreds of cases to identify the top juvenile car thieves in the area. They found that 14 teenagers had been arrested five or more times on grand theft auto charges in those 18 months.

Reporters then dug through court and police records involving these kids and their families dating back to their births.

They looked at social media pages and jail records. They consulted with developmental psychologists to figure out what to research and how to identify potentially significant patterns.

The juvenile with the most arrests during these 18 months was Isaiah Battle, caught eight times on grand theft auto charges before being sent to a juvenile program. In January, after another arrest, Isaiah was sent to the Pinellas County Jail to await trial as an adult. During this time, he agreed to a series of interviews with reporters. The public defender’s office was notified before the first interview by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

The Times decided to identify Isaiah based on his openness and the depth of his discussions with reporters. It opted not to name the other 13 kids because they did not speak with reporters, and their brief stories included in this part of the series don’t focus on their car thefts. The information centers on circumstances outside of their control, life events, including physical and sexual abuse, in which they were sometimes the victims.

Isaiah’s mother, Yashica Clemmons, spoke to the Times last year after her daughter and two other girls drowned in a stolen car that plunged into a pond. Since then, Clemmons has declined to speak with the Times.

About the reporters

Lisa Gartner
is a reporter on the Times enterprise team. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for an investigation that showed how a neglectful school board turned some Pinellas County schools into “Failure Factories.” Contact her at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.
Zachary T. Sampson
is a Times reporter who covers crime and breaking news in St. Petersburg. His 2016 investigation into Walmart’s costly practice of using local law enforcement officers to police its stores garnered national acclaim and led to reforms. Contact him at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @zacksampson.
Dirk Shadd
is an award-winning photojournalist whose work includes “Failure Factories.” He has spent more than 18 years covering Lightning hockey. Contact him at dshadd@tampabay.com. Follow @dirkshadd.

Additional credits

  • Editor Graham Brink
  • Video production Monica Herndon and Danese Kenon
  • Story design Lyra Solochek and Lauren Flannery
  • Research Caryn Baird