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Detectives grappling with uptick of car thefts across Pinellas

Published Jul. 17, 2015

St. Petersburg police Sgt. John DeLuca remembers how, more than 10 years ago, thieves primarily stole cars by jamming screwdrivers or scissors into ignitions.

But pilfering vehicles has become relatively easy in recent years because many drivers leave their keys inside unlocked cars. Across Pinellas in the past two years, detectives at the Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg and Clearwater police departments have noted an uptick in vehicle thefts.

St. Petersburg has seen the biggest increase, with a 24 percent rise from 2013 to 2014. DeLuca, of the agency's auto theft unit, expects the numbers will continue to climb.

"It's totally changed from punching ignitions to just doing doors," DeLuca said. "All you have to do is walk down the street and check door handles."

Detectives have received reports of groups that walk in neighborhoods or business parking lots and lift door handles. If a car opens, they rummage inside in search of a key, typically tucked away inside a glove box. If an unlocked car has a keyless ignition, thieves can push the ignition button and drive off if the key fob is in or near the car, DeLuca said.

At the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, detectives have noted a 20 percent increase in car thefts from 2013 to 2014. So far this year, hundreds more have been reported, with only a few stolen without the use of a key, said auto theft unit Sgt. Ken Luth.

"It is a real problem right now," Luth said. "I review all the theft cases for our agency, and I can count on one hand broken windows to get into a car. It's just not happening that way anymore. There's just too many unlocked cars."

Some cars have even been stolen off dealership lots. Four cars were recently reported missing from a dealership on 34th Street, DeLuca said.

In a separate case, Carl Mikell, 34, walked into the Bargain Auto Mart in Kenneth City on June 23 to test drive a 1999 Volvo worth $4,500. Instead, he drove the car 2 miles away to Pinellas Auto Brokers in St. Petersburg, where Mikell told employees he wanted to trade in the Volvo for a Cadillac, according to arrest reports.

While employees walked toward the Volvo, Mikell stole a key and drove off in a Cadillac, reports state. He was arrested later by Pinellas deputies.

In Clearwater, police have seen a nearly 15 percent increase in thefts from 2013 to 2014. So far this year, there have been more than 150. Thieves, who are usually juveniles, target residential areas, as well as gas stations.

"Even if you're gone for a second, you have to lock your car," said Clearwater police Detective Meg Hasty. "The kids that are stealing these cars, we've been told by them that they're lurking around gas stations and waiting for somebody to do just that."

Detectives said it's common to recover a stolen car. Many thieves drive the cars for a short time and then drop it off somewhere, knowing that police will be searching for them. Sometimes, the cars are traded for drugs, guns or cash, Luth said.

"Some cars are for status," DeLuca added. "They'll flaunt them to friends, drive them around, show off to buddies."

Some suspects have gone as far as repainting them, but police can easily identify stolen ones by running the tags or finding the vehicle identification number inside. Hasty said Clearwater detectives have recovered stolen cars within the first five to seven days, adding that suspects have been targeting newer Hyundai models, including Sonatas and Elantras.

The easiest way to avoid becoming a victim, detectives say: lock your car all the time, don't keep your keys inside, and have your vehicle rekeyed if it has been recovered.

Chances are, DeLuca said, the thief still has your key.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or follow @lauracmorel.

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