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Inside A 'Car-Theft Epidemic' In Florida


In Pinellas County Florida near Tampa, there is a problem with car-hopping. That's when people - kids mostly - steal unlocked or idling cars and drive them as fast as possible for as long as possible. It leads to car crashes. This week, two Tampa Bay Times reporters, Zachary Sampson and Lisa Gartner, published an investigation into the trend. Lisa Gartner joins us now from Tampa member station WUSF. Welcome to the program.

LISA GARTNER: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Describe a typical car-hop to me.

GARTNER: Well, what the kids have been doing is they will go to a street. Typically, it's somewhere they can walk to or bike to. Although, sometimes they'll take a car they've already stolen to get there. And they will walk down the street testing door handles. And what they're looking for is unlocked cars.

And then once they get inside the car, what they're looking for is a key. And you would be surprised by how many times they're finding keys in the center console or the glove compartment, from a lanyard, under the seat, and that's when they take the car.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When we say kids, how old are these kids?

GARTNER: We saw kids as young as 10 stealing cars. And the kids we spoke to that were older talked about getting involved around that age, around 10 or 11.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So once they get these cars, what do they do with them?

GARTNER: Well, so that's where the fact that they're juveniles really comes into play. When adults steal cars, it's often about, you know, sending them off to another continent or chopping them up for parts, making money.

When kids steal cars, they keep them on the streets. They're using them as toys. They're seeing how fast they can go - 160 miles per hour on the highway. They're driving the wrong way. They're chasing other friends in other stolen cars. In at least one case, we saw stolen cars used in a drive-by shooting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How long has this been going on, and how did it start? It sounds like there's a culture of this.

GARTNER: Well, that's a great question. We've seen the number of arrests, at least for juveniles, ticking up in Pinellas in the last few years. It does spread very socially. They're sharing everything from what they're in to who they can pick up to who needs a ride to cop sighting - you know, stay inside, the narcs are out - on Facebook, on Instagram. One girl was arrested after an Instagram photo appeared of her inside the car that police were looking for with the caption, GTA squad, just grand theft auto.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds like they're almost seeing it like "Grand Theft Auto" videogames.

GARTNER: Perhaps, it's been brought up before. But it certainly seems like a real life one playing out on our streets. And it's very dangerous. Kids in stolen cars in Pinellas crash every four days. We've had, you know, horrific t-boning accidents, where police cars go up in flames. We've had kids themselves getting injured.

Of course, a year ago, three girls, 15 and 16 years old, drove into a cemetery pond trying to evade police in a stolen Honda Accord. And all three drowned trapped in the car that they'd stolen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are the consequences that these kids face? Are they getting fines, community service, detention?

GARTNER: Well, so that's part of why the crime is so popular. Because of the way it's classified by the law as a property crime, there aren't really repercussions, at least not right away. A lot of the times, the police and the parents of these kids who are frustrated and want their behavior to change will describe it as a slap on the wrist. They're taken to a juvenile center, and they're released home. And they're taken to a juvenile center, and they're released home. The way they see grand theft auto is they don't believe that too much is going to happen. So they get out, and they steal another car.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lisa Gartner reports for The Tampa Bay Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

GARTNER: Thank you.


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