ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Florida authorities said three teenagers — one 14-year-old and two 16-year-olds — stole a sport utility vehicle, sped away from officers and died in a fiery, violent crash early Sunday morning.
The 4:30 a.m. crash happened in Pinellas County, in west-central Florida.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a news conference Sunday morning that a fourth teen in the SUV, who is 14, survived and is hospitalized. He said all the teens all had criminal histories — including one who had gotten out of jail on July 31.
Among the deceased: 16-year-olds Keontae Brown and Dejarae Thomas, and 14-year-old Jimmie Goshey.
Gualtieri said a Ford Explorer and a Chrysler Sebring were stolen from a Clearwater car dealership Thursday. Both vehicles were spotted by deputies early Sunday morning. Deputies tried to apprehend the drivers of the cars, but didn’t pursue them. The sheriff’s office’s pursuit policy generally does not allow deputies to chase stolen cars.
Deputies believed the teens were using the stolen cars to commit burglaries. At one point, they set up a perimeter to try to catch the teens, but a deputy spotted the vehicles outside of the perimeter.
At that point, the sheriff said, the cars were in a “cat and mouse” game with each other, accelerating and slowing down. Gualtieri said that the cars hit speeds 100 mph or more.
The deputy that spotted them did not initiate a high-speed chase, but the Explorer continued at about 100 mph when it hit another vehicle, caught fire and went airborne. The Explorer also hit a billboard pole.
The driver hit by the Explorer suffered minor injuries, the sheriff said.
Officers found the Chrysler Sebring and arrested the two in that car; one is 16 and the other 18.
Gualtieri said the teens involved were being monitored under a program for repeat offenders.
In 2015, police in Pinellas made 499 felony arrests for juvenile auto theft, more than any other county in Florida going back eight years, and more than the most populous counties in America, including Los Angeles. The Tampa Bay Times did an investigation into teen car thefts in April of 2017; the paper found that every four days, a teen crashes a stolen car in Pinellas County. It also found that in nearly every other county in Florida, most people arrested for auto theft are adults. But in Pinellas County, 62 percent are younger than 18 — the largest rate of juveniles arrested for grand theft auto of any sizable Florida county for at least a decade.
“This needs to stop. It’s a deadly game,” Gualtieri said Sunday. “These kids have got to stop this.”