Advertisement
  1. News

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist on juvenile auto theft: "People are dying because of what's happening here."

From left: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway during a meeting Monday evening with community leaders to discuss the ongoing car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth and how law enforcement, elected officials, and community organizations can work together to put an end to this dangerous trend. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
From left: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway during a meeting Monday evening with community leaders to discuss the ongoing car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth and how law enforcement, elected officials, and community organizations can work together to put an end to this dangerous trend. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 9, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Local leaders said Monday evening that juveniles stealing cars is the number-one public safety threat in Pinellas County and needs to be addressed immediately.

At a meeting convened by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, city and county officials pointed to the Tampa Bay Times' "Hot Wheels" series, which they said drew attention to the dangerous epidemic and brought the problem to the forefront.

"My family has lived here since 1976 and I've never seen a public safety issue like this one before," said St. Petersburg Councilor Ed Montanari.

"It's just a very sad state of affairs, and I'm ready to start implementing solutions to get a hold of this."

The Times stories showed that kids as young as 10 are taking cars — usually unlocked, with keys inside — and driving the wrong way on major roads, speeding down residential streets, blowing red lights and crashing into trees, other cars and houses.

HOT WHEELS: Click here to read the entire series.

A Times analysis of a year-and-a-half of cases found that juveniles crash stolen cars in Pinellas every four days.

Yet young thieves told reporters they view stealing cars as a game and don't fear the consequences of getting caught. Often, they spend hours or days in a detention center that they likened to day care.

In 2015, the most recent full year for which data were available, cops in Pinellas made 499 juvenile arrests for grand theft auto, more than some of the largest counties in the country, including Miami and Los Angeles.

Last week, the Florida Legislature passed bills that would make it easier to hold the most chronic offenders either in a juvenile detention center or on an electronic monitor. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign it into law.

But Crist, police chiefs, and civic leaders said they need to do more on a local level to keep kids from stealing cars and to dole out consequences when they do.

"While we're making some progress and the enforcement efforts are mitigating it," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, "it's still a very very serious problem and still what I'd consider to be the number one public safety issue in Pinellas County."

Crist said he took a lot of notes from the meeting and was going to study them.

"This is a serious problem in our community," he said. "People are dying because of what's happening here."

St. Petersburg City Council Chairwoman Darden Rice said she wanted to have a conversation "about how we can invest in our youth differently."

"How do we turn these kids into a valuable part of our community instead of just a threat?" Rice asked.

Several leaders, including Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers, stressed the need for after-school programs that engage juveniles and keep them from turning to crime.

Others spoke to the trauma that has marked some of these young thieves' childhoods.

"When we see these crimes, we're looking at at least two victims," said Nick Dempsey, an associate professor of sociology at Eckerd College. Some of these children grow up in households without a reliable parent, proper nutrition or reliable housing, he said. "These kids themselves are often already the victim of concentrated disadvantage."

Some kids feel less safe in their own homes than at the Juvenile Detention Center, said Pinellas Commissioner Pat Gerard: "They eat better there, they sleep better there, and they're less stressed there than in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods."

St. Petersburg Council member Karl Nurse suggested making lockup "less of a positive experience."

"I don't care if it's cutting the grass or weeding the garden or painting the wall," Nurse said. "It shouldn't be something that's a badge of honor."

Many attendees spoke of a need to spread public awareness. St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said at least seventeen cars were stolen in the week after the Times series ran online. Of those, most were left unlocked and at least two cars were left running. "One kid took the key off the teacher's desk and stole it from the school," Holloway said.

"Parents and neighbors need to wake up."

The Rev. Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas Urban League, said he told Crist that this was the kind of issue he hoped to see taken to the national level.

Once Pinellas decides its course of action, Haynes said, it could have lessons for other communities dealing with car theft. "We just need to take from this meeting, retreat into our own corners, and figure it out," said Haynes.

Crist said everyone at the meeting "has a personal responsibility" to not drop the ball on finding solutions for the car theft problem.

He said he hopes to reconvene the group in the "not too distant future," when everyone has had time to contemplate the discussion and potential solutions.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Andre Clemens, 24, was arrested on two counts of attempted murder, discharging a firearm from a vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to Tampa police. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
    Andre Clemens faces two counts of attempted murder. Tampa police have said little about the shooting near E Fowler Avenue.
  2. Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck in 2015 during the first Florida Black Bear hunt in 21 years at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. The hunt was so controversial that state officials have not held a second one. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
    But commissioners leave the door open for future hunts in next decade
  3. Frontier Communications this week launched tools to combat robocalls better. Pictured is a Frontier flag flies outside Frontier's regional office in Tampa in 2015. [Times file photo]
    The internet, phone and cable provider will help its customers better identify spam and fraudulent calls.
  4. Tampa Electric Co. customers will see a reduction in their rate for next year. Pictured is the utility's headquarters in Tampa in 2017. | [Chris Urso | Times (2017)] [URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The reduction comes because of a drop in Florida’s corporate tax rate.
  5. James Dailey, 73, faces execution for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Left: Dailey at his 1987 trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Middle: Dailey in 1993, when he was again sentenced to die. Right: The most current photo of Dailey on Florida's Death Row. [Times]
    In a series of written orders, U.S. District Judge William Jung rejected appeals from lawyers who argue James Dailey is innocent of a 1985 Pinellas County murder.
  6. FILE - This Nov. 1, 2018, file photo, shows the Google logo at their offices in Granary Square, London. [ALASTAIR GRANT  |  AP]
    Google search data reveals what topics people in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area were most curious about this year.
  7. An Air Force carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Navy Seaman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, of St. Petersburg, Fla., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. A Saudi gunman killed three people including Haitham in a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) [CLIFF OWEN  |  AP]
    Foreign citizens are allowed to buy guns if they first get a hunting license
  8. This photo provided by Time magazine shows Greta Thunberg, who has been named Time’s youngest “person of the year” on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.   The media franchise said Wednesday on its website that Thunberg is being honored for work that transcends backgrounds and borders.  (Time via AP) [AP]
    She rose to fame after cutting class in August 2018 to protest climate change.
  9. Javarick Henderson Jr., 13, seen on a video screen at his first appearance hearing on Wednesday. A grand jury indicted the boy as an adult on a charge of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his grandmother, and his case is now being handled by the adult court system. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    Javarick Henderson Jr., 13, was indicted last week on a first-degree murder charge.
  10. The new Maydell Drive Bridge will be a multi-use bridge to cater to cars, bicyclists and pedestrians with travel lanes, 8-foot shoulders, and a barrier-separated 5' sidewalk & 10' trail. [Hillsborough County]
    Hillsborough County closed the bridge in December 2015 after an independent engineering study found it was structurally unsound.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement