ST. PETERSBURG — Two teens died when the stolen car they were driving hit a tree and erupted in flames early Monday, police said, marking the tenth and eleventh deaths connected to Pinellas County's juvenile auto theft epidemic in little more than three years.
Damari Milton, 18, was driving and Dequante Lightsey, 16, was a passenger, police said. The 2016 Mazda Miata swerved at 38th Avenue N and 49th Street about 3:30 a.m., colliding with a tree. Investigators say Milton was speeding. Authorities initially reported that both boys' bodies were burned beyond recognition.
"We've got to stop this," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway. "I'm tired of hearing (about) kids getting killed over this."
The Tampa Bay Times chronicled the county's struggle with teen auto theft last year in its series "Hot Wheels," which showed that teenagers were caught stealing cars in Pinellas more often than anywhere else in Florida and more even than some of the nation's biggest counties. Kids here crashed stolen cars once every four days.
READ THE 'HOT WHEELS' SERIES: 'It's spreading. And we're part of the problem.'
Both Milton and Lightsey had been accused of grand theft auto before, according to state criminal records. Milton had also faced other charges, dating to 2015 and including weapon possession and burglary. Lightsey, records show, had likewise been accused of burglary and larceny.
Relatives could not be reached for comment Monday.
Gashes in the grass led to another gash in the tree where they died. Red and white flowers rested at its base, below a loose ribbon of yellow police tape.
Police said the Miata had been stolen just hours before the collision. It was unclear late Monday what caused Milton to lose control.
The vehicle was taken from Annette Kielhurn, 60, who said she saw her empty driveway on 74th Avenue N about midnight while carrying out garbage. She said late Monday she still has her key — the only one she knows of for the Miata — and the vehicle automatically locked when she walked away.
"They were babies," she said, shortly after learning from police her vehicle had been involved in the crash. "If I could have kept them from dying, I'd have given them the damn car."
Several kids had already died before the Times report last year, but more were out each night, pulling the handles of cars, finding some unlocked with keys inside and speeding off. They drove recklessly, with little knowledge or care for rules of the road. They hurt themselves and others. Young auto thieves said they were bored, sometimes poor and in search of a thrill. They scoffed at police and called the justice system weak, saying that getting caught typically had little consequence.
Despite law enforcement dragnets and tweaks to the state juvenile justice system, the problem endures.
Police say one of the key issues remains tough to combat — drivers leaving their cars unlocked, with keys inside. But they did not say that happened in Monday's case.
Statistics in St. Petersburg show officers have logged 636 reports of auto thefts to date in 2018, down from 804 this time last year. Holloway credited a police program, known as Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement, which brings a group of officers countywide into regular contact with the most frequent juvenile offenders, including some on probation. Records show both Milton and Lightsey had histories of probation violations.
Holloway also attributed the decrease to public awareness campaigns and a violent crimes task force patrolling each night.
"We're addressing the problem, but we're still not getting across to some of these kids out there that taking these cars is a bad thing," the chief said.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he secured $100,000 in state funding for a program for at-risk youth, expected to begin in January. It will be run by the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association, an organization for black lawyers, and the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, Inc.
"I'm absolutely horrified at the continuation of this problem," said Rouson, who last year said he took his young sons to the funerals of three boys who died in another fiery stolen car crash in Palm Harbor. "I'm anxious to hear input and to work on solutions, but it's going to take more than just elected leadership."
Shaquana Harper, president-elect of the Minnis Bar Association, said the program will target at least 30 high-risk children, offering mentorship and job training.
Milton, who turned 18 on Aug. 30, appeared once in the thousands of pages of police reports Times reporters examined for their series last year. He was arrested Nov. 12, 2015, accused of stealing a car from his mother. He picked up his girlfriend, 15 at the time just like him, according to a police report, and drove a 2007 Dodge Nitro into a tree.
She suffered "significant injuries to her face." He ran away.
An officer wrote that Milton's mother was "extremely angry" and told investigators her son took her car keys when she fell asleep after bringing him to a court date that afternoon.
Milton eventually admitted to stealing the car, according to the report, and to losing control while speeding down the road. He said he "was peer-pressured by his friends."
A Facebook page that appears to belong to him on Monday featured a photo of Milton reclined on a bed holding what looked like three guns.
At his feet lay a pile of car keys.
Times senior news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird and staff writers Dirk Shadd and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.