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Joyride leads to crash into Clearwater home

They had slipped off their shoes and settled into the cozy bamboo recliners of their Florida room when a crash echoed throughout the house.

Joseph and Frances Hale padded toward the noise at the front door.

They found furniture scattered, walls shattered, and the bumper of a red Ford pickup wedged 4 feet into their living room.

"We saw a bunch of kids running down the street, just laughing," said Mr. Hale, 65. "If it had been 20 minutes earlier, they would have run over us. We'd been out trimming the shrubs."

A neighbor on his way home saw the crash, then trailed four T-shirt-clad boys who leaped from the truck. The neighbor chased the youths, ranging in age from 9 to 14, for a half-mile until police eventually caught them. The youths have not been identified because they are juveniles.

The truck had been stolen sometime Friday night or Saturday morning. Its owner, Rick Smith, was home when police called about 2 p.m. to say his truck had been found "embedded in a house" at 1002 Jeffords St.

Nobody was injured, but Clearwater building inspector Thomas Chaplinsky considered condemning the Hales' home because the structural damage was so severe.

But Chaplinsky said the Hales could stay because neighbors were helping them patch the holes with plywood and 2-by-4s. He estimated the damage at $4,000.

"It's amazing," he said. "They had four collectors' plates hanging on a wall and didn't break. They fell on the carpet when the wall came down."

The truck smashed into the house after clipping a mailbox across the street and sideswiping a telephone pole. Late Saturday, police still were trying to determine which boy was driving.

Dwight Matheny, 40, did not see who was behind the wheel. Nor did he see the red flash of brake lights as the truck headed north on Jeffords and crashed in the house, Matheny said.

One boy was in back, he said. Three others were in the cab.

They all giggled as they ran away, so Matheny said he decided he had better follow them in his car.

The boys split up, but Matheny said he stayed close behind the tallest of the youths. He saw the boy leap fences, cross several yards, duck behind a shopping center and run to an elementary school where he met up again with the others.

At times, Matheny said, he was close enough to the boy to yell "Gotcha" and point his finger at him.

"My thinking was I didn't know if they were armed," said Matheny, who recently moved to Clearwater after selling his decorative glass business in Georgia. "I felt it was best to just keep them in sight and let the police do the apprehension."

Officers found the boys inside a house several blocks away, then took them into custody. They were charged with grand theft auto.

Smith, the truck's owner, said he discovered the Ford missing about 10 a.m. Saturday when he went to his Jaguar shop on Missouri Avenue. The truck had been parked near a Dumpster.

"I've only had it about three days. I've never even used it," Smith said. "I've still got the keys in my pocket."

He was unsure how the boys managed to start the truck and jar its steering column, but he said they got inside by smashing the driver's window.

"Of all the cars there, I don't know why they would have taken an old beaten-up truck," Smith said. "You could see where they peeled out _ the skid marks and mounds of dirt."

A woman who lives near the boys told police that she had seen the truck hidden by her house overnight, but the truck was gone early Saturday morning. Police Sgt. Jim Heinz did not know whether the boys were joyriding or whether they meant to crash into the house.

Either way, the Hales just feel bad about their house.

"We think of it as our doll house," said Mrs. Hale, also 65. "We had just painted our living room and had it plastered. It was fixed up, then this happens two or three weeks later. It's sad."