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Car thefts increase with repeat performances

The Sheriff's Office says about 30 teens are to blame for a rash of stolen vehicles.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- What might seem like teenage high jinks is turning into long hours for Hillsborough Sheriff's deputies and bad news for unhappy car owners.

"We're getting killed with auto thefts," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Tony Mannario, who patrols Town 'N Country. "We're working 14-hour days, holding priority calls and can't cut the rookies loose fast enough."

That's because a couple dozen teenage car thieves have taken joy riding to new heights.

"One tactic they're using is to steal, say a white Honda from one residence, drive it all night" and then find another white Honda to replace it with, Mannario said. "It's a game."

Or a teen in the city who has a girlfriend in Town 'N Country steals a car there to visit her, and then steals another to get home.

"They think it's a joke," Sheriff's Capt. Roger Dixon.

Authorities and vehicle owners are not amused. Car thieves "normally destroy the ignition," which costs about $500 to be rebuilt, Mannario said. "Most people have $500 deductible on their insurance so it comes out of pocket."

To make matters worse, authorities say the same 30 or so culprits, all 17 and younger, are committing the same crimes.

"It's not unusual to arrest the same juvenile 30 to 50 times," Dixon said. "If we could put those 30 into a playpen for 30 days, we would have no auto theft."

Once arrested, teens are taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center where they are booked, have their mug shot taken and are given a test to determine their safety risk. Within 24 hours they appear for a detention hearing, said the center's Norman Campbell.

The court then determines whether to detain the youth, opt for home detention or release them outright, Campbell said.

"They learn to play the system and get in and out pretty quickly," said Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Hicks. "The Juvenile Assessment Center is calling the parents to pick them up and typically they're out before we can get back out to the district."

While none of the northwest has escaped the problem, authorities say the areas hardest hit include Westchase, Calusa Trace, the neighborhood around Leto High School and the Waterford, Quail Oaks and Cypress Lakes apartment complexes on Waters Avenue.

Thieves are happy "with any type vehicle as long as it has an engine and four wheels," Mannario said.

Crime statistics suggest only a modest increase in car thefts in the Sheriff's District III patrol area, which includes Town 'N Country and Carrollwood. Seventy-eight vehicles were stolen in January 2000, 112 in January 2001, and 119 in the first month of this year.

"We've got a task force working 24 hours, morning and night, but it's still hard to get the numbers down," Mannario said. And that task force puts a strain on resources at a time when some deputies are serving in the military reserves.

Considering that District III has only half a deputy per 1,000 residents, Dixon said, "we're doing an excellent job with what we have."

Communities such as Baycrest Park and Twelve Oaks are participating in program where residents routinely patrol their neighborhoods, keeping an eye out for crime.

"People are leaving car doors unlocked," Mannario said. "Remind yourself to lock the doors and set the alarm."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

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