1. News

What do kids need to stay away from deadly auto theft epidemic?

Congressman Charlie Crist (center) listens as Shenyah Ruth (right), a junior at Northeast High School, talks during Wednesday's youth roundtable meeting with community leaders and kids. They met to discuss the ongoing car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth and how law enforcement, elected officials, and community organizations can work together to put an end to this dangerous trend. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Congressman Charlie Crist (center) listens as Shenyah Ruth (right), a junior at Northeast High School, talks during Wednesday's youth roundtable meeting with community leaders and kids. They met to discuss the ongoing car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth and how law enforcement, elected officials, and community organizations can work together to put an end to this dangerous trend. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 24, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — More than a dozen black teenagers told U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist on Wednesday that children need stronger mentors and youth programs to steer clear of the auto theft epidemic plaguing Pinellas County.

"I don't want to sit in a room with someone who's never been in my situation, or is scared to be in my neighborhood," said Angelique Evans, 15. "We need more role models. We need more people who are willing."

HOT WHEELS:Read the revealing series on juvenile car theft in Pinellas

The 14 local youths, who ranged from a fifth-grade student drinking apple juice to a junior college freshman, were invited by Crist to a community roundtable at St. Petersburg College's Midtown campus.

The congressman hoped to learn new ways to reach St. Pete youth who are turning to crime and fueling the county's deadly trend of kids stealing cars. Earlier this month, three boys from Clearwater died when the stolen Ford Explorer they were driving crashed. Last year, three St. Pete girls drowned when the stolen Honda Accord they were driving plunged into a pond.

The problem was the subject of "Hot Wheels," a recent Tampa Bay Times series that found teenagers behind the wheel of stolen cars crashed every four days.

WRONG WAY:His sister died stealing cars. Why didn't the No. 1 car thief stop?

In 2015, more juveniles were arrested for grand theft auto in Pinellas County than anywhere else in Florida and most places nationwide, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.

The teens at the table with Crist were not these car thieves — but Junior ROTC members, club presidents and magnet students who advised the congressman on what their peers need to help them stop making bad, even deadly, choices.

Deterryon Anderson, a St. Petersburg High School student, said he was friends with Keontae Brown and "close friends" with Dejarae Thomas, two of the boys who died when the speeding Ford Explorer crashed Aug. 6.

TIMELINE:Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)

"I felt like something could have been done to prevent that," said Deterryon, who played football with Dejarae when they were younger. "I wish he could have taken a different route."

He credited the school's athletics teams with keeping him on track, and his coaches for serving as role models.

But not everyone has an activity they're engaged with, the teens said, just like many don't have a strong father figure.

"There are programs out there for the good kids with high GPAs and who want to go to college," said Shenya Ruth, 16. But when it comes to teenagers who are not already on the right track, she said, "people are scared in a sense to work with those kids."

Several programs in St. Petersburg do attempt to attract young African-Americans, including "Men in the Making" and "Cohort of Champions," run by local pastors and the city. But getting the kids who could benefit the most from these groups in the room is a challenge, said Angelique.

"These programs that are out there, they're not being advertised in a way that kids are going to want to enjoy them," said the sophomore at Northeast High School.

Crist said he is continuing to look at federal grants and other funding opportunities for local activities.

"Having good programs available to our young people is critical," Crist said afterward, "so we will pursue that with a vengeance."

The most recent story in the Times series focused on Isaiah Battle, a 16-year-old St. Petersburg car thief and the brother of Dominique Battle, one of the girls who died in the pond. Wednesday would have been her 18th birthday. The story detailed Isaiah's effort to stay out of cars, and how he eventually turned back to crime after being unable to find a job.

Crist said the community needs to push businesses to offer jobs to teens — even those with criminal records. "We can encourage companies to help them out," he said.

The roundtable was briefly delayed by supporters of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, who blame city leaders and the police for the death of Dominique and her friends. They shouted that Crist was manipulating the kids for a press stunt.

The children pushed back against claims they were being used, saying they were honored and proud to be speaking on behalf of their peers.

"To be living in a black community, there's nothing bad about that," said Ukari Register, 16. "We're good people, good music, good food."

Register said he grew up without a consistent father figure, but called his hard-working mother his role model.

"Not having a father figure … that doesn't justify me going out stealing a car, going into a house, robbing somebody," said the Boca Ciega High School junior.

New programs can only work if teens choose to put their faith in them, Register said: "There are enough programs, but it's like, a child has to meet you halfway."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.


  1. Brett Griest, 61, and his wife, Shannon, are the proprietors of the East Main Street Coffee Shop & Sandwich Shop in New Port Richey. The coffee, specialty sandwiches and a neighborly feel keep customers coming back. [Michele Miller]
    Three years in, the East Main Street Coffee and Sandwich Shop is making a go of it.
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has invested $3 million in Bridge Connector, a Nashville-based medical technology company.
    Bridge Connector already had ties to Tampa. Its founder graduated from the University of South Florida. And most of its funding has come from a venture capital firm founded by the former chief...
  3. All 13 candidates running for three Clearwater City Council seats participated in a forum at St. Petersburg College Clearwater library on Dec. 7. [TRACEY MCMANUS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    With nine candidates running for two council seats and four vying for mayor, the season’s first forum served as an introduction.
  4. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Another driver was taken to the hospital with serious injuries.
  5. As with last year’s Christmas program at Northcliffe Baptist Church, the special event this year will include music, narration and skits. [Northcliffe Baptist Church]
  6. Osceola Middle School civics teacher Mike Rivera of Largo does his vampire act to teach his seventh-grade students about the Bill of Rights recently.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  7. Lynn Cristina is a Wesley Chapel momma with two girls and works full time as a marketing manager. [Courtesy of Lynn Cristina]
    If it helps to pull some good behavior out of my youngest, it will be $29.95 well spent.
  8. USF St. Petersburg graduates await their turn to walk the stage during the May 2019 commencement at Mahaffey Theater. This year's fall commencement is set for Sunday, when some 450 USFSP graduates will be receiving degrees. [LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  9. Cesar Silva walks with his 7-year-old service dog Sophia at Rotary Riverfront Park in Temple Terrace. A disabled Iraq war veteran, Silva takes Sophia with him everywhere but ran into trouble with a park ranger during a 2016 visit to Veteran’s Memorial Park. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    It started with a heated encounter between Cesar Silva, who has disabilities, and a park ranger. Silva helped bring about the same changes at city parks in 2013.
  10. Hope Children's Home Executive Director Dr. Mike Higgins shares a laugh with a group of children. He and his wife Chris came to Tampa 21 years ago. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times (2015)]
    Dr. Mike Higgins has been executive director of the facility for 21 years.