1. St. Petersburg

A pedestrian killed. A sergeant injured. Stolen cars still haunt St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway in a 2014 photo. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times]
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway in a 2014 photo. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Published Jul. 24, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — After reported stolen vehicles killed a pedestrian and injured a police sergeant this week, St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway expressed his frustration with the persistent and dangerous problem of teen-fueled auto thefts. He also made this grim prediction:

"It's going to happen again," the chief said at a Tuesday news conference.

The latest incident took place Monday night. A 15-year-old driving a stolen Camry sped north on Seventh Street S, ran the stop sign at 18th Avenue S and collided with a St. Petersburg police vehicle. A sergeant and three occupants of the Camry were all taken to the hospital with minor injuries. A fourth person fled but was later captured.

The 15-year-old driver, police said, was arrested on outstanding warrants. Charges related to the crash are pending. Police did not release the names of anyone involved in the crash.

HOT WHEELS: Read the 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation into Pinellas' stolen car epidemic.

That crash took place after a pedestrian was killed at about 12:28 a.m. Monday by a speeding, stolen car, police said. Phelexis Jakara Robinson, 26, was fatally injured after being hit by a stolen Infiniti sedan.

The Infiniti was headed south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S when it struck Robinson near 34th Avenue S. Robinson's car had just broken down and she was in the roadway when she was struck, police said. The Infiniti was found abandoned at 37th Avenue S. No suspects have been identified in that case.

Those two stolen vehicle crashes belie the statistics released by police that show reported auto thefts have dropped by 51 percent over the past four years. There were 1,523 thefts reported in 2015 and just 746 reported in 2018.

But the problem is more complicated than that in Pinellas County. In 2017 a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that the county had a larger rate of juveniles arrested for grand theft auto then any other major Florida county over the past decade. Those thieves were young, reckless and prolific, getting arrested again and again for the same offenses.

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

In March, then-15-year-old Keondrae Brown was arrested after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said he and another teen ran from deputies in a stolen vehicle, then ditched it and tried to run. He was 14 when he was the lone survivor of the fiery wreck of a stolen SUV that killed his 16-year-old brother and two friends in 2017.

Police have attempted to crack down on those thieves by closely monitoring repeat offenders. But the problem continues to persist, the chief said. Holloway noted that many thieves appear to be moving north and stealing vehicles out of Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

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"It's very concerning to me because the trend is going down, but kids are still stealing these cars and people are still getting hurt," Holloway said. "How do we keep getting our message across?"

THE LATEST: At 14 he survived a stolen SUV crash that killed three. At 15 he stole again, deputies say.

The chief challenged parents: "It's 10 p.m., do you know where your child is? Because your child could be out there tonight looking for a car and get involved in an accident and they could kill someone."

He also admonished car owners who leave their fobs inside unlocked vehicles. That just makes it too easy for teens to steal. In one week in August 2018, Holloway said 17 auto thefts were reported in the city — and in 16 of those cases the owners reported leaving their keys inside the vehicles.

"These kids walk through the neighborhood, they try the car doors, and if the car has a push start, they press the button and see if it works," Holloway said. "It's that simple."

The chief added: "Maybe we hold the parents accountable and maybe we hold the car owner accountable for leaving that key fob in the car ... it's 10 p.m., do you know where your key fob is?"

The chief also pleaded with teens to recognize the risks they take when they steal cars they don't even know how to drive.

"My message to a kid tonight is, do you really value your life? Because a lot of them don't," he said. "They're driving these cars at 70 and 80 mph, running stop signs and they do not know what that vehicle can and cannot do.

"They're very fortunate (to survive), because we've lost a lot of kids."

Contact Aaron Holmes at Follow @aaronpholmes. Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at Follow @danuscripts.