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Car theft "epidemic' traced to young expert

He is a juvenile. His initials are R.P. And police say he's one of the reasons car thefts here are skyrocketing. Police say R.P. has made stealing cars easier and faster thanks to a new method he introduced to local car thieves in which a common flat-head screwdriver is all that is needed.

Back in 1986, when R.P. came to St. Petersburg from Ohio, he started teaching other young people his method. He was 14 at the time.

"He was sitting around with a group of juveniles bragging about different crimes they had taken part in, and he said, "I know how to steal cars,' " said Detective Jessica Isidore of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

She has handled cases involving R.P.

"The guys said they all knew how, but he said, "I've got a way that's so different,' " Isidore said. "He taught four friends who each taught four or five friends and the system sort of pyramided into what we have today: an epidemic."

Car thefts in St. Petersburg have more than quadrupled in five years, from 592 in 1986 to 2,605 in 1989, and the numbers continue to skyrocket.

At a meeting this week in Lakewood to address the problem, St. Petersburg police Detective Robert Moland offered some easy ways to avoid being one of the victims. Nationwide, a car is stolen every 30 seconds. Police estimate that across the country, one of every five cars stolen has the keys left in the car and four of every five are unlocked.

"The simplest solution is to lock the cars and take the keys," said Moland. "The average American who has a handful of groceries and screaming kids will leave the car unlocked. But we need to wake up a little bit."

Beyond that, he recommends any of the anti-theft devices that can be bought in a hardware or department store for less than $40. Most of these either lock the steering wheel to the brake pedal or protect the ignition. These offer no guarantees, Moland said, and they are an inconvenience, but they are often a strong deterrent to a car thief.

In the long run, consumer groups should pressure car manufacturers to build an inexpensive clamp shell that sits around the steering wheel and makes it impossible for thieves to break into the steering column, he said.

"When you go the mall or to church, you are the prey," Moland said. "And the way not to be the prey is to think like the predator."

Moland says most car thieves are juveniles, and they are stealing the cars as a way of rebelling against authority as much as for money.

"These kids steal cars for the sheer power of it," he said. "It is a 4,500-pound status symbol. Everybody and his brother knows how to steal a car."

R.P.'s method appeals to car thieves because it is so simple, detectives said.

"The screwdriver is used to break into the steering column and start the actuating rod with a very specific action," said Moland, who investigates auto theft. "You can't imagine how quickly this information has spread through youthful offenders."

About a year and a half ago, after R.P. was arrested and taken to the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center, he continued to teach his skill to the young men there. And when they got out, they taught the method to their friends, detectives said.

Car thieves steal for different reasons. Some take cars for the money, and usually strip them down for parts. Some steal them to use in other crimes. But police say most people steal cars to impress girlfriends, visit friends in other states, or just to prove they can do it.

Moland said many of the juveniles he questions about car thefts do not see anything wrong in stealing cars. They do it because it is the "in" thing to do, and once they start they continue.

"It's like eating potato chips," Moland said. "It must be thrilling for a 14-year-old kid to drive around in a $17,000, high-powered Camaro."

And because stealing cars is perceived as such a status symbol among teens, more and more youths who otherwise wouldn't be getting involved in crime are committing these crimes, he said.

More than 90 percent of the cars stolen are recovered, Moland said, but usually with the wheels and tires gone, and extensive damage to the interior.

Car thefts in St. Petersburg

1985 _ 592 cars stolen

1986 _ 855

1987 _ 1,295

1988 _ 1,849

1989 _ 2,605