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A St. Pete street, a teen car thief, and the most unlikely victim

Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent's unmarked cruiser was stolen from his driveway along with police gear and keys to every door in the Gulfport police station. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]

Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent's unmarked cruiser was stolen from his driveway along with police gear and keys to every door in the Gulfport police station. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Published Apr. 27, 2017

Coming back late from a weekend away at a wedding, Robert Vincent and his wife wanted to go to sleep. They unloaded the car in the driveway of their home in St. Petersburg's Fossil Park neighborhood. Call it haste, or exhaustion, but either Vincent or his wife forgot to lock the Subaru Outback.

In the middle of that November night in 2015, while Vincent and his wife were sleeping off their trip, teenagers found keys in the center console.

But they didn't belong to the Outback. Rather, they were the keys to Vincent's other car — the one he uses for work. And the ring they were on held much more than just the car key.

READ THE SERIES: Hot wheels: Kids are driving Pinellas County's car-theft epidemic. It's a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game.

READ THE SERIES: The chase: Cops, teen car thieves and a dangerous game

Months later, after a 15- and 16-year-old were charged with the theft, Vincent would be asked to state his name and occupation for the court.

"Robert Vincent," he said, spelling out his last name.

"I'm the chief of police for the city of Gulfport."

• • •

His first thought was, This is embarrassing.

Vincent woke up that Monday morning and didn't see his car at the curb. Had he forgotten where he parked it?

"I mean, I go out and preach all the time, 'Lock your car,' and then here we are," Vincent says.

Who had stolen the car? The chief had no idea. And this was bad. The unmarked cruiser, a Dodge Charger, held two bags of police gear: disposable handcuffs, a riot helmet, first aid kit and Vincent's police jacket.

Soon, St. Pete police found the cruiser abandoned 2 1/2 miles away. Most of the gear was gone, and so were the keys.

The key ring held not just the fob to start the Charger -- but the keys to every door in the Gulfport police station.

• • •

Lerodrick Brister, 16, originally didn't cooperate when police put him in an interview room. But his friend, in a separate room, admitted to the whole thing. He told police that he and two other boys panicked when they realized the car they'd taken was a police cruiser.

Lerodrick pleaded guilty. He served time in a program and went to court last August for a restitution hearing that would determine how much money he owed his victims. The department never got some of its gear back, including a riot helmet, still possibly floating around St. Pete.

The police chief testified about the ironic indignity of being a theft victim, then stepped down from the witness box to walk back to his seat in the courtroom. That's when Lerodrick stood up, his body half-twisted toward Vincent, and said, "I wanted to say, I'm sorry for my actions."

The chief studied the boy for a silent three seconds.

Then Vincent reached forward to shake Lerodrick's hand. "Well, that certainly goes a long way."

• • •

The presiding judge commended Lerodrick for his apology. Then, something very different happened.

Judge Patrice Moore told the boy that it probably would not matter whether he ever paid the chief and the city the $800 he owed them.

The debt may come up if he applied for a student loan or tried to buy a car, but as his life now stood, no one would come hound him for the money. "Nothing may ever happen to you," Moore said.

The judge knows a lot of children who come through her courtroom are poor and not worried about payments. She tries to push them into jobs, to see a better future.

But that approach angered the police chief. The next day, he fired off a letter to the judge detailing his "disappointment and frustration."

"Your instructions to Mr. Brister were insulting to me, and I am certain, to the members of this community," he wrote. "The root of the problem is a lack of consequences for kids who break the law."

• • •

Months after he apologized to Chief Vincent in court, Lerodrick posted again and again on Facebook, saying he wasn't going to school, wasn't up to much of anything except chasing money. Who stayed home?? Who up?

He uploaded pictures of himself throwing up his middle finger, fanning cash in front of new cars. Ill rob da whole city before i die broke.

In March, the owner of an old Chevrolet Astro reported his gun stolen, a .22 Ruger. Stray fingerprints on the passenger door led police to Lerodrick.

When they handcuffed him on March 15, the teenager did not admit to anything. They took him to face his charges including armed burglary and grand theft auto.

But this time, instead of driving him to juvenile detention, they dropped him off in county jail.

He was 18 now.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com.

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