ST. PETERSBURG — They agreed to meet at a Taco Bell. No guns allowed.
Joe Lentini, 60, stood across from the stranger who promised to get his stolen cars back. Lentini frisked the man for weapons and lifted his own shirt to show he wasn't wired. His new acquaintance asked if he was a cop.
Together, they headed to the back of an abandoned house, where one of Lentini's cars was supposed to be parked.
He needed this man's help.
But it came with a price.
• • •
Founded in 1969, Ted's Auto Sales at 4021 66th St. N is owned by brothers Ted and Lou Tenaglia. The dealership sells about 80 pre-owned cars a month.
Lentini, a Boston native with slicked back salt-and-pepper hair, is the general manager. He comes from a family of car salesmen. His father and grandfather were dealers. He became one 45 years ago in Massachusetts and then moved to Florida in 1991, where he worked for dealerships throughout Tampa Bay.
Two years ago, he placed an ad online for a lot attendant. Among the applicants was Carl Mikell, a married man with a young daughter who lived less than a mile away. Mikell's mother had previously been a clerk at the dealership. He was honest with Lentini about his four-year prison stint on 2006 charges, according to records, of burglary, cocaine possession and carrying a concealed weapon.
Lentini gave him a chance. Mikell, 34, biked to work every day.
"A model employee," Lentini said. "Owners would have him do weekend jobs at their house and this and that. He did tree work on the side and lawn work. … We're Italian. We brought him for dinner. We paid him good."
On May 27, a 2014 Kia Optima heading to auction went missing while parked outside the dealership. Two days later, Mikell quit.
He dropped off his set of keys and walked out without saying a word.
• • •
On May 31, a man from Fort Myers who said his wife was being treated at a local hospital walked into the dealership. He took a 2010 Mazda 6 for a test drive and never returned. It was the second car stolen in less than a week.
About 1 a.m. the next day, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper stopped a driver that ran a red light on 66th Street N. The trooper ran the car's VIN number and discovered it was the Mazda. Behind the wheel was Mikell's 30-year-old brother, Christopher, a Cadillac symbol tattooed on his chest, police records state. He was arrested on charges that included grand theft motor vehicle.
The thefts escalated on June 5, when Lentini received a call from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office: The dealership office's glass door was shattered. A Ford F-150, Dodge Ram and Infiniti M35 were gone. Also missing was a silver Dodge Charger, which had been stolen twice before.
The dealership installed cameras and a new alarm system. They removed the car keys from the office every night. But on June 22, the surveillance captured someone familiar.
Carl Mikell broke into a back door, turned off the alarm, and took two sets of keys dangling from a wall in the service area. He headed toward the back of the lot, where vehicles that aren't for sale are parked, and got into a Dodge Dakota pickup, according to arrest records.
Mikell rammed into a wooden fence, knocking it down. He parked the truck, slipped into a Volkswagen Jetta, and drove off.
The next day, Mikell walked into the Bargain Auto Mart in Kenneth City to test drive a 1999 Volvo. Instead, he drove the car 2 miles to Pinellas Auto Brokers in St. Petersburg, where Mikell told employees he wanted to trade in the Volvo for a Cadillac, arrest reports state.
While employees walked toward the Volvo, Mikell stole a key and drove off in a Cadillac. He was arrested later and is facing charges for the stolen Volvo, Cadillac, and Jetta.
• • •
With six stolen cars, Lentini was worried about insurance rates.
"We don't know what to do. We know the insurance company is real nervous," he said. "We're either going to get triple rates or canceled."
He consulted with Sal DiGregorio, nephew of Ted Tenaglia. DiGregorio is 6 feet tall and wears a thick gold chain and bracelet. Although he has lived in St. Petersburg for 30 years, his New York accent and Mets jersey show his roots.
"You meet me one time," said DiGregorio, who runs a transportation company that operates on the beach, "it's hard to forget."
He and Lentini decided to create online ads to announce $1,000 for the location of the stolen cars — no questions asked.
"The best way to do it is to put it out there with a reward," DiGregorio said. "People do things for money."
• • •
Car thefts have spiked across Pinellas. At the Sheriff's Office alone, detectives noted a 20 percent uptick from 2013 to 2014. Hundreds more have been stolen this year.
"We are starting to really, really have a significant problem," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The best way to cope is for people to secure their property, not post a reward, Gualtieri said. What if the person who stole the car sees the ad, contacts the owner, and collects the money?
"It's a horrific idea. It's not safe for anybody to do that," he said. "You're catering to thieves and really enabling them."
• • •
A few days after the ad was posted, Lentini's cellphone rang.
He declined to identify the man he met at the Taco Bell at 3401 Fifth Ave N. DiGregorio's friend, Bill Pond, went with him. Following the stranger's directions, they headed south of Central Avenue and drove through several alleys in search of the dealership's Kia Optima.
"He wasn't exactly sure where it was," Pond said, "but he had a good idea of it."
They found it tucked behind a house on 14th Street S. With a key in his hand, Pond bolted out of the car, got into the Kia, and pulled out of the alley.
The next day the stranger called again. Pond and Lentini picked him up at the Taco Bell and headed to Gandy Boulevard, where they found the Infiniti M35 across from the Derby Lane.
Up next was the Dodge Charger, parked in front of a house at 4158 14th Ave. S in the Childs Park neighborhood. This time, DiGregorio accompanied Lentini. When they stopped in front of the Charger, several men emerged from a nearby home.
"It wasn't such a friendly scene. Luckily, my roots go way back in the area and people started recognizing me. Made it a little easier," said DiGregorio, who said he used to own a transportation business in St. Petersburg. "I'm not the kind of guy that scares easily."
One of the men hugged him before leaving Lentini and DiGregorio alone.
They towed the Charger back to Ted's.
• • •
As weeks passed, the other missing cars were recovered without the help of Lentini's mysterious informer.
Police found the Ford F-150 in Kenneth City and the Dodge Ram and silver Jetta — its windows now tinted and its exterior painted black — in St. Petersburg.
If another car is stolen from Ted's Auto Sales, would the dealership resort to online ads again?
Absolutely, said Lentini.
"In this business," he added, "you have to think outside the box."
Times staff researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Carfax. Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com. Follow @lauracmorel.