Hillsborough County sheriff's Office deputies have charged four teenage boys with rolling through suburban neighborhoods smashing windows and grabbing guns, radios and other equipment from sheriff's and Florida Highway Patrol cars.
On Wednesday, sheriff's deputies said they have been rounding up youths who might have participated in the burglaries during the past few weeks.
Sheriff's spokesman Jack Espinosa said four young men have been charged directly with burglarizing the cars while four other young men, charged with prowling, also are the focus of the burglary investigation.
"The brazenness of breaking into marked police cruisers and stealing police equipment flies in the face of law and order," sheriff's Maj. Ron Poindexter said. "I feel like all law-abiding citizens should be concerned about this problem because of the brazenness of it."
Two 16-year-olds and two 15-year-olds have been charged with armed burglary, grand theft auto, shooting into an occupied vehicle and petty theft. The youngsters were taken to the Hillsborough Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
A 17-year-old and adults John Antonio Martinez, 19, of 9335 Millbrook Ave., Nephtali J. De Jesus, 20, of 7107 Dellwood Drive, and Joseph Dino Fernando Mendez, 20, of 2902 Sample Loop, were charged with prowling and loitering, according to deputies. They are being investigated as part of the law enforcement burglaries.
Sheriff's Det. L. A. Reddick said deputies linked the group to eight robberies of patrol cars so far, but they expect the number to grow as the investigation continues.
Espinosa refused to say how many more burglaries deputies were investigating.
All the boys have extensive criminal records and their current charges point to the failure of the juvenile justice system, Poindexter said.
Investigators are calling the burglary ring a gang, and may use that designation to ask for stronger punishment under state gang and racketeering statutes.
Sheriff's deputies began investigating the case Sept. 16 after several of their cars had been robbed, Poindexter said. They found other agencies _ such as the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state's Alcoholic Beverages & Tobacco Division and the Tampa Police Department _ were having the same problem.
Poindexter said it's possible the members of the robbery ring used some of the clothing to pass themselves off as law enforcement officers.
"There may be people who have been victimized by these people impersonating police officers," he said.
Blue lights, computer equipment, flashlights and batons were stolen from some of the cars as well. So far, more than $31,000 worth of stolen property has been recovered, Reddick said. He said thousands of dollars worth of goods still are missing.
Reddick said detectives got their first leads in the case after a routine traffic stop in Tampa last month. He declined to give details of the incident, but said that and "other investigative leads" led them to the ring.
Four were arrested at their homes late last month and earlier this month.
The other four young men were arrested early Wednesday by deputies investigating complaints of loitering and prowling in the Plant City area. Reddick said the four were linked to the burglary of law enforcement cars after deputies discovered a gun reported stolen from a state trooper's car last month in their possession.