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Police hunt auto thieves, warn drivers

Police had Emmorris Grace's fingerprints from a prior attempted auto theft.

So when the 18-year-old tried to steal a Chrysler minivan from Tyrone Gardens on Tuesday, police were watching, and he was arrested.

Identifying habitual car thieves and spying on them is part of a new drive by St. Petersburg police to cut down on auto thefts and educate residents.

"I can't tell you how many times we've recovered a stolen car and The Club is sitting in the back seat," said Rick Stelljes, police spokesman.

Through August of this year, the number of vehicle thefts citywide has increased more than 22 percent, from 1,257 to 1,538, and is bucking a downward pattern across the state. And a handful of juveniles in St. Petersburg account for slightly more than half of car thefts.

To help fix the problem, St. Petersburg police recently organized an awareness campaign, "Everybody Pays, Don't Let It Be You."

Officers point to Elizabeth Diane Smith, the 16-year-old St. Petersburg girl who stole a Lexus late last month and was killed behind its wheel when she collided with a dump truck. She was fleeing a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.

"She really paid the ultimate consequence," said Maj. Reggie Oliver, head of the property crimes unit.

Through undercover patrols and neighborhood meetings, officers plan to catch offenders and teach residents to take preventive steps _ locking doors of older- model cars such as Dodges, Saturns and GMs, using an anti-theft device such as an alarm system, and never leaving cars running and unattended.

City taxpayers have doled out $64,000 so far for undercover overtime and another $11,000 on materials for the community such as bumper stickers and windshield visors.

Teaching residents is the key, police say. A rally is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 14 in Tyrone Gardens, where bumper stickers, brochures and windshield visors will be handed out.

"We can't incarcerate ourselves out of this," said Maj. Cedric Gordon, who oversees officers assigned to apprehending offenders and recovering stolen vehicles.

So, car thieves beware.

A task force of 10 officers works peak auto theft hours _ after school to early evening _ to recover stolen cars and to catch teenagers and young adults who steal vehicles again and again for joyrides.

Investigators have worked 34 undercover operations since June, making 15 arrests and recovering 30 stolen cars, which police estimate are worth $290,000.

The arrest of Grace, the St. Petersburg youth accused of trying to steal the minivan this week, might bring the auto theft rate down for September. Often, one person or group is responsible for an increase in the rate during a month.

A few months ago, Grace stole a Plymouth in St. Petersburg, drove it to Clearwater Mall, then tried to steal a Jeep Cherokee from the mall parking lot, police said.

A witness chased him off and wrote down the Plymouth's license tag number. Officers got Grace's fingerprints from the Jeep.

Grace was under police surveillance Tuesday when he tried to break into the minivan in Tyrone Gardens.

"He basically told me he was bored and did this mostly as a rush," Detective Jeff Manning said.

Juveniles and young adults are inexperienced drivers who endanger lives and property when they steal a car, said Oliver, the major of property crimes.

"Auto theft affects everybody," he said. "A lot of juveniles don't understand that."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.