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A hit-and-run crash leaves two more victims in Pinellas County's juvenile auto theft epidemic

Published Dec. 1, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Finally, at Walmart, Toby Anderson found the picture hanging strips he needed.

It was about 5:15 p.m. on Thursday and he had to get downtown. He drove along 33rd Street, pausing at the stop sign for 5th Avenue N, near St. Petersburg High School.

He doesn't remember exactly what happened next.

Suddenly, Anderson's Nissan Altima was turned around in the grass, all the airbags out. He saw a young girl through his windshield, running away.

It wasn't until later, when emergency responders talked to him in an ambulance, that he learned at least three teenagers had hit him in a stolen Ford Edge. Anderson, 63, became the latest victim in Pinellas County's juvenile auto theft epidemic, yet another person whose life was upended by teens in a stolen car.

He'd heard of the problem before, but only vaguely, through stories and neighborhood meetings. The Tampa Bay Times has chronicled the phenomenon in a series called "Hot Wheels."

Anderson was taken to the hospital — stiff, bruised and with a fractured left wrist.

"I'm so lucky," he said Friday morning, "because it could have been so much worse."

TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: HOW TEENS ARE DRIVING PINELLAS COUNTY'S CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC

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

THE CHASE: Cops, teen car thieves and a dangerous game

WRONG WAY: At 15, Isaiah Battle was the county's No. 1 car thief. He had every reason to stop.

• • •

Cindy Croak was in Florida for a break. She can't bring herself to host Thanksgiving at home in St. Louis anymore after her husband's death in 2016. Instead, she travels with his family to a condo they own in Belleair Beach for the holiday.

They drove down in her 2017 Ford Edge — the first car she ever bought on her own. She always gave her husband a color before, and he would pick out the car for her.

The sport utility vehicle was so new, she hadn't read the manual.

Croak, 62, left it unlocked, parked in a reserved spot at the gated complex. She hadn't heard about the auto theft epidemic.

"We thought we were protected here," Croak said.

The family spent last Saturday at the beach next to the condo. Around dinner time, Croak walked to the parking lot. The SUV was gone. She called police.

Investigators arrived and asked if some other relative had driven the Edge and parked it elsewhere. But Croak knew no one had, and the last time she saw it was the night before.

She broke in: "Sir," she said, "my car has been stolen."

• • •

Officers in the county know the story too well.

They told Croak it happens all the time — kids break into unlocked cars, find keys and speed away on joyrides.

Croak said she still has one fob for the SUV. But sometimes, police say, there's a spare or valet key inside, especially with new models. It's unclear if that's what happened in Croak's case.

The Times auto theft series, the first part of which published in April, tracked all the crashes, arrests and victims from January 2015 through June 2016. Eight teen auto thieves from Pinellas have died in the last two years.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THREE BOYS DIE IN STOLEN VEHICLE

Three boys dead after fiery crash in stolen SUV, Pinellas sheriff says

Teens in stolen car crash had 126 arrests; murder charges possible (w/video)

Sheriff releases video showing teens reaching 140 mph before fatal Palm Harbor SUV crash

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

At monthly neighborhood association meetings in Kenwood, Anderson said, he has listened to a St. Petersburg community officer talk about auto thefts and burglaries near his home. He's an eighth-grade teacher in Tampa and doesn't know if his car was totaled. He has to figure out a way to get to work, and deal with the insurance paperwork.

"Knowing that age group like I do, I know that there are some kids that are lost," Anderson said. "The anger only comes from the frustration that I have with the inconvenience of it all, and their lack of consideration for that."

Croak had to find a way to get her family and the Thanksgiving supplies she brought to Florida back home. The first vehicle she ever bought for herself? She never wants it back. It was missing for nearly a week.

"Lord knows what they did in that car," she said.

• • •

One person got away from the crash, but two girls, 15 and 16, were caught along with a 17-year-old boy. The Times isn't naming them because of their ages, but they all face charges of grand theft auto.

It's at least the fourth auto theft arrest for the boy, according to his lengthy criminal record.

Young thieves have told the Times stealing cars is a thrill, a way to stave off boredom and look cool driving to new places. They say they don't fear the juvenile justice system, which considers grand theft auto a property crime, akin to stealing a $300 phone from an electronics store. Many kids are held for just a few hours or days after their arrests.

Croak is relieved that people did not die in the crash but sorry someone else got hurt.

Clearly, she said, Pinellas has a problem. She wondered if the teens would be out this weekend.

"I feel like I'm being punished more than the criminals," she said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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