Tampa Bay teen auto thefts – More than a Pinellas County issue

ELLENTON, Fla. – It’s become a familiar routine in Tampa Bay.

Teens steal car. Law enforcement find teens driving in stolen car. Law enforcement chases stolen car. Teens are caught after ditching stolen car.

This scene played out in Manatee County on Tuesday when three 15-year-olds stole a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Sarasota County, then drove to the Ellenton Outlet Mall. Manatee County deputies found the vehicle, then tried to stop it. Deputies chased the vehicle into a nearby apartment complex where the teens were eventually caught.

Here’s the kicker – Two of the three teens were arrested on Friday for the same crime, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said.

"We’re just going to have to start getting tough on juvenile crime again," department spokesman Dave Bristow said. “So we’re going to have to start addressing juvenile reform and start doing something to get it across to these kids, that you can’t do this sort of thing.”

In most instances, stealing cars isn’t about picking locks and "hot-wiring" vehicles, Bristow said.

"They’re going neighborhoods, they’re checking for unlocked vehicles," he said. "They’re finding unlocked vehicles. Sometimes they’re finding keys in the vehicle. That’s when they go on the joyrides.”

A ‘game’ with deadly consequences

Teen auto thefts reached a state of heightened concern in August 2017 after three teens were killed in a fiery Palm Harbor crash while driving a stolen vehicle that was being pursued by Pinellas County deputies.

The trio, along with three others, were "running in tandem" after stealing a Ford Explorer and a Chrysler Sebring from a Clearwater car lot, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who at the time called the situation a "game" — stealing cars, driving at high speeds overnight and doing it again the next day.

MORE: 3 teens identified after deadly crash; sheriff says they’re ‘prolific offenders’

The three teens killed were two 16-year-olds and a 14-year-old. A fourth teen was seriously injured after being ejected from the vehicle.

Two teens in the second vehicle, ages 16 and 18, were later arrested.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time teens were killed while stealing vehicles. Three girls died in March 2016 after driving their stolen vehicle into a St. Petersburg pond.

But it was the fiery crash that prompted further community conversation, including a roundtable discussion in August 2017 with Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and an October 2017 panel discussion that outlined solutions, including social programs for at-risk children instead of longer jail sentences.

Ongoing efforts

Despite the continuing problem, described as an "epidemic" by Gualtieri, overall auto thefts are down in St. Petersburg.

There were 978 auto thefts within city limits in 2017, compared to 1,095 in 2016 and 1,523 in 2015, according to St. Petersburg police.

MORE: Convicted auto thieves share 9 things they look for when boosting cars

“While auto theft remains a serious juvenile crime issue, St. Petersburg Police is making progress in reducing the numbers,” the department said when the numbers were released in February.

Police cited multiple factors for the decrease, including:

Collaborating with law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and judges.The Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (H.O.M.E.) program, where officers do regular home checks on juvenile offenders on home detention.And Investigative Support Unit that focuses on tracking youth gang members and their activities.Public education with weekly social media posts to remind people to lock their cars.

In Manatee County, where juvenile auto thefts are also declining, one particular organization is taking kids off the streets and putting them onto the football field.

Adrian McPherson, a former two-sport star who plays quarterback in the Canadian Football League, started the McPherson Foundation three years ago to provide sports options to local children. His program has grown from 14 students to nearly 100.

"So I just try to tell the kids, ‘look I don’t care what your situation is, we all know right from wrong,’" he said. "As long as you are a good person making right decisions, work hard, you at least give yourself a chance a life."

Working hard on the field is something McPherson’s students don’t want to give up, he said.

"That’s what keeping these kids doing the right things because they are not going to sacrifice this for that," he said.

Continuing issues

Earlier this month, a vehicle stolen by teens in Apollo Beach was found in St. Petersburg.

“It is becoming more than a St. Pete issue, as you see,” said Cristal Nunez, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. “Now it’s happening in our county. And like I said, a lot of times these juveniles have ties in other counties and they go back and forth, and that might be exactly what this is.”

In Manatee County, there were 179 auto thefts involving juveniles so far this year, compared to 315 in 2017 and 335 in 2016, the sheriff’s office said.

”We have seen a decline in the last month or so with the vehicle burglaries because we had a little task force going and whenever you can saturate areas you can see a reduction," said Bristow, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. "But you can’t keep that up forever because you have to saturate with so many deputies."

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