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Researcher says Pinellas' car theft crisis is fixable, but still more dangerous than most realize

From left: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway during a meeting last year to discuss the car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
From left: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway during a meeting last year to discuss the car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 26, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County's juvenile auto theft epidemic is still more dangerous than most people realize, a researcher told local officials Monday, but it is also more fixable than many believe.

A St. Petersburg-based think tank, The Caruthers Institute, has undertaken an $85,000 project to look at the deadly problem of teens stealing cars. Dewey Caruthers presented early findings to elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders Monday.

"The more you get into this, the more you tend to stay up at night going, 'Wow, we're living on borrowed time right now,' " said Caruthers, whose project was inspired by a Tampa Bay Times series last year about teens stealing cars called "Hot Wheels."

HOT WHEELS: Kids are driving Pinellas County's car-theft epidemic. It's a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game.

Among the recommendations Caruthers expects to make with the final study: Developing a conference system to bring victims of auto theft and suspects face-to-face; hiring mentors who have turned their lives around and can relate to young car thieves; and better connecting service providers who work with juvenile delinquents and their families.

It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement several projects. Caruthers said the community needs to share the load to beat the crisis.

Attendees at the presentation included U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, state Rep. Ben Diamond and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The Times series found that over an 18-month period, police in Pinellas made more juvenile grand theft auto arrests than anywhere else in Florida. But children here continued to steal cars, in search of a thrill and social clout. Most took vehicles that were left unlocked, with keys inside. They sped off, sometimes the wrong way, careening into trees, light poles and other cars.

Nine Pinellas teens have died since Oct. 2015 in incidents related to auto theft.

Caruthers explained that the epidemic has festered under a failing juvenile justice system that "lacks accountability." Children, he said, do not feel swift or serious consequences for their crimes and fall into a cycle of committing more offenses.

"They're doing a very, very good job of gaming the system," he said. "Law enforcement needs more players on its team."

In Pinellas, he said, authorities have made gains with a program called Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement. Officers check on the county's most prolific juvenile offenders almost daily. Caruthers said he expects his final report to suggest an expansion of HOME.

Gualtieri, the sheriff, St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway and Pinellas Park Police Chief Michael Haworth all said car thefts are down in their jurisdictions.

But HOME has cost Gualtieri's agency alone about $2 million, he said. Moving forward, he said, officials will need a full accounting to determine what programs are working and what aren't to help local youth.

"There's dollars," the sheriff said. "Some of them need to be repurposed."

Caruthers said he plans to release his full study in June, when the group reconvenes.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.