1. St. Petersburg

Stolen car leads to murder charge in death of St. Petersburg woman, police say

ST. PETERSBURG — A stolen black BMW sedan raced through the city, going up to 90 mph, a helicopter tracking it from above. On the ground, officers laid down spikes onto the road and punctured the tires.

Out came 17-year-old Tavirus Walters, according to the arrest report, defiant and angry.

"Soon as I get out, I'm coming out in a faster car and you all ain't catching me," he told the officers. "Y'all ain't catching me without that chopper 'cause I drive too fast."

That was October 2015. Walters was part of a much bigger problem, a group of prolific and reckless juveniles fueling an epidemic of auto thefts in Pinellas County. He would be caught again and again as he reached adulthood.

Now 21, he faces his most serious allegations yet: Walters is accused of driving the stolen car that killed 26-year-old Phelexis Robinson in a hit-and-run crash on July 15, according to St. Petersburg police.

"I feel some kind of justice that they have somebody in custody, but we won't really know until he's convicted," said her father, Phelix Robinson, 59. "It's super hard. Trust me. That was my beautiful baby and I'm never going to be able to get her back."

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

The father said there may have been others riding with Walters, that police are searching for them. However, police did not address that issue Friday.

"I hope they get the rest of the guys who did this to my baby and put them where they belong, behind bars," he said. "I know the police are going to be looking for them and if it takes the police too long I'm going to be out there on the street doing the police's job for them."

The circumstances of Phelexis Robinson's death is reminiscent of Walters' 2015 arrest, and the teens-stealing-cars phenomenon overall. Walters was again speeding recklessly on July 15, police said, driving another stolen luxury car.

Police got the call at 12:28 a.m. Robinson's Lincoln had just broken down on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S, near 34th Avenue S. She was standing in the street next to her car.

Walters was barreling south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S, police said, driving a white Infiniti reported stolen from Hillsborough County.

Then Walters slammed into Robinson, police said. The car was found abandoned on King Street S near 37th Avenue S.

The Infiniti was found abandoned on King Street S near 37th Avenue S. Walters ran.

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

"This crime that happened was very heinous and it was important for us to bring justice to Philexis and to her family," said St. Petersburg police Lt. Patrice Hubbard, who leads the traffic section.

"The lead traffic homicide investigator in this case, when he was able to call the mother of the victim and say that (Walters) had been taken into custody, there was a great sense of relief …"

In 2017, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed the scope of the teen auto theft problem: Pinellas had a higher rate of juveniles arrested for grand theft auto then any other large Florida county over the past decade.

They moved fast and drove fast, prowling neighborhoods for unlocked cars, stealing vehicle after vehicle, and getting arrested over and over again.

Juveniles had turned stealing cars into a deadly game, and Walters' 2015 arrest report showed he treated it as such.

A Tampa police helicopter tracked the stolen BMW 550i GT as it sped around St. Petersburg, nearly striking several pedestrians and cars as the driver tried to get away. On the ground, officers struggled to corral the car, unable to predict it's next move.

Then an officer managed to shred the BMW's tires with Stop Sticks — a spiked device used to deflate tires — near 49th Street S and Sixth Avenue S. The helicopter crew spotted the driver abandon the car at 20th Avenue S and take off running.

An officer drove after the driver, who gave up and dropped to the ground. It was Walters, the report said. After being read his rights, the teen soon started boasting about his exploits.

"The only reason y'all got me was cause the helicopter! I've been burning y'all for two days in that car," he said. He told officers the only reason he gave up was because he didn't feel like racking up another criminal charge.

The BMW had bullet holes. That's why Walters said he only paid $40 for it, likely buying it off another juvenile. He said he had stolen cars stashed all over.

"I'll always run on y'all," Walters said. "I got fast cars and you ain't catching me again."

After the Times investigation, authorities vowed to clamp down on these young offenders, and in large part succeeded. St. Petersburg police statistics show that 1,523 auto thefts were reported in the city in 2015, but that fell to 746 reported in 2018 — a drop of 51 percent.

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

But even one reckless teen can be dangerous and endangered. At age 14, Keondrae Brown was the sole survivor of a stolen SUV that crashed and caught fire, killing his 16-year-old brother and two friends in 2017. In March, Brown was arrested for stealing another vehicle, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, and had already been classified as a prolific juvenile offender.

Robinson wasn't even the only one injured by a stolen vehicle on July 15. That night, officials said a 15-year-old driving a stolen car struck a police vehicle, injuring a sergeant.

Walters was 18 when he was next arrested for auto theft in November 2016. Since then he has been accused of fleeing and eluding, drug possession, driving without a license, failing to appear in court and numerous traffic offenses.

He now faces charges of third-degree murder, leaving the scene of a crash involving death, grand theft auto, driving without a valid driver's license causing death, grand theft firearm, carrying a concealed weapon and violation of probation.

Walters also had several outstanding arrest warrants. He was being held in the Pinellas County jail in excess of $150,000 bail.

Contact Aaron Holmes at 706-347-1880 or Follow @aaronpholmes.